By Pam McDonald, Producer and Co-host of the Senior Living Foresight Podcast

Amy Birkel, Chief Operating Officer for the Omaha, Nebraska-based Heritage Communities, has walked a mile in her residents’ shoes – literally. She moved into all 13 of her company’s communities for, in essence, a respite stay. With an open mind and adventurous spirit, she got a good behind-the-scenes look at life for their residents. Amy shared some of what she learned in a Senior Living Foresight podcast interview. Below are some takeaways from that episode; the entire interview is here.

Where This Idea Came From

A couple months ago there was a vendor in our industry who reached out to me looking to enhance the software products they use for seniors. They asked if they could [stay overnight] in one of our communities to just really immerse themselves with the residents. I was really impressed, and it got me thinking, why wouldn’t we do that in our own communities? And so, I came back to senior leadership team and I said, “I want to experience this from the resident side.”

I want to understand what the move-in/orientation process looks like. How do you explain what this now means for me in my new routine and what does it mean for changes in my life? It was a good 24 hours in every community and there were so many opportunities and things that I’ve learned along the way through that. 

A Focus on the Residents’ Perspective

Every night when I would go back to my apartment, I would put together all my notes and it truly was from the resident’s side. I wasn’t looking at the operations. ‘Oh, I saw this, we need to repair this, or this needs a little touch up paint it’. I really kept my focus on, how did I feel through this experience? Did I feel welcome? Did I feel like I had the knowledge and information to know what I needed to do? 

I tried to pull together some trends, like what were some typical things, or did I routinely feel certain ways. One is that it’s very quick how all of a sudden, you’re just one of the group, and while that’s a good thing, you kind of lose a little bit of your own individuality . . . because it’s ‘the residents are coming to do this. The residents are here. This group is coming’. That sense of belonging is great, but all of a sudden, you’re just ‘I’m apartment 220’. I didn’t think I would have that or that that feeling would come to the table fast.

Part of the Group, Yet Retaining One’s Individuality

Definitely some of the nights were long. I’m a mother, I’m busy at my work, I’m needed a lot. But in the community, they were all there to check on me and take care of me, but no one needed me to do something, so I felt like I’m just one in the group of residents. So, any time a community recognized something about my own personality, it actually meant a lot. 

I’ll give you a quick example. All of the communities welcomed me in some way, whether it was flowers at my apartment or a little goodie basket of bottled water and snacks. But at one community – building number seven or eight for me – the team led me to my apartment, opened the door, and the very first thing I see is a picture of my daughters and myself framed. I literally dropped my bags and I’m like, ‘oh my gosh’, because that’s my world. That’s so important to me and the fact that they recognized that about me uniquely was, it just touched me more than I thought it would.

We need to take every opportunity to bring out a resident’s interests and life experiences. Let them share that. It’s just reminding them that they’re needed and important and have a lot to contribute. Yes, we want them to be a part of the group, but not at the chance of losing their identity. 

About half the communities had a resident ambassador or resident buddy program, where basically they pair up their new residents with one or two . . . in fact, at one building, I had three, residents that were kind of assigned to be in charge of me. That made a big difference in how the other residents accepted me, were warm to me versus when the community staff, who were very friendly and did a great job of introducing me, it wasn’t the same kind of sense of belonging. I wasn’t exactly a peer quite yet. I felt a little bit more like the new girl.

Where We Go from Here

I think I have an obligation and a responsibility to make sure we use this experience. So, as a first step, I’ll be putting all my notes together, kind of these top 10 things that were trends, and sharing them with my senior leadership team. Tomorrow I have a video conference call with my community leadership teams to share those with them and then come up with a collaborative plan. What do we want to do as a team, company-wide? What do you want to do as a community?

One piece I absolutely want to focus on for the remainder of the year and definitely into 2020 is getting more input from our associates who are caring for our residents. There is so much value from hearing from those individuals, and] doing some good dialoguing. I need to close that gap more. 

Including Residents in Feedback Processes

I think there were three or four communities where I was invited to a “secret” resident meeting, and it wasn’t a grievance or complaint session. They had things that were very important to them that they wanted me to know. Things like the grand piano needs to be tuned or Ladies’ Night, where all the ladies get a special activity, is not as special as Men’s Night. I’m not making light of it, my point is that at this stage, they have more time to enjoy some of the lighter aspects of life. The little things and that makes them so much more important.

I think a trap that it’s easy for operators to fall into, and myself included, is we’re faced with some big challenges, some things of great magnitude that take a lot of concern, worry. and stress. We’re so busy with those things that I think it can feel on the resident side that we don’t care about the little things. It’s not that, it’s that we’re not prioritizing the same as the residents are. And so, we need to recognize that perception difference and we need to listen to their feedback with an open mind, not being quick to explain or justify why, as operators, we do what we do.

It was just truly interesting, the things that they were so concerned, worried, or passionate about, and I think how that can be cascaded down is if community leadership teams regularly spent a couple hours face-to-face with groups of residents.

To answer your question, would I move into one of our communities? Absolutely, in all honesty, in a heartbeat. Now there’s things that I too would like fixed, such as my air conditioner was kind of loud or one shower had some water that spilled over. There are definitely things I’d be putting some work orders in and would be giving my 2 cents on, but, in a heartbeat.

Creating Opportunities for Residents to Experience Purpose

In our life enrichment or activity programs, I think we get lost in trying to make sure that calendar is full. Maybe we need to think more about purposeful activities instead of just always leisure enjoyment. I think there’s an opportunity to involve the residents more, especially in our independent living and assisted living. What resident-led programming can we do? 

If I truly lived in senior living, I’d like to think that I could still lead a sitting chair exercise class or, be able to get up and speak about when I went on a trip to Europe and share my pictures. It would fill my buckets in two ways: 1) it’s something I’m proud of, and 2) it recognizes me individually. There’s a lot of opportunities there if we can just open up the creativity box for each community.

Parting Thoughts

As a last takeaway I guess . . . maybe this is going to sound too simple, but it’s the communication piece. We leave. We work long hours. We have staff there, but we leave. This is truly people’s homes and they need that communication when something changes in their home. I don’t care if it’s painting the parking lot or that a repairman is going to be here. You wouldn’t have those things happen in your own home without some sort of heads up, right? 

I think we lose sight of that because of operational efficiencies. We’re helping the residents by making sure we’re delivering on all these great things. We’re taking care of the parking lot, the air conditioner, getting their apartment deep cleaned, but the communication of that highlights our respect. It’s not operations, employees, and then residents. This is the residents’ home. We maintain it, we support it, we staff it, but ultimately it is theirs. And so, when things are going on, they need to know. 

I think as industry leaders, we need to be as transparent as we can. We need to be honest and open and collaborate with them to make this blend work the best we can do it. 

(This post has been lightly edited for clarity, length, and style.)