Friday, February 21, 2014

I'm Just Sayin'

After reading a recent post on a Senior Housing Forum written by Steve Moran (Senior Housing Industry Blogger and regional business development officer for Vigil Health Solutions, I felt a surge of frustration. It appears that journalists continue to attack the assisted living profession, pointing fingers and citing one or more isolated incidents or rehashing issues long since resolved.  I applaud Mr. Moran’s defense of the company under fire, and I quote him as saying, “ I hate these stories because they hurt real residents, real staff, real seniors, and real families.’ As a former Executive Director of Assisted Living Communities, I appreciate Mr. Moran’s concern. The culture of a community is very fragile; a crafty, supposedly candid exposé discourages residents, their caregivers, and those in the industry who spend their lives dedicated to caring for seniors.

In my opinion the media, writers and publishers are the only ones that benefit from the negative publicity.  As a good story is rarely told, the disparaging articles create confusion and fear at a most inopportune time.    It is imperative that the residents in a community, who are physically and emotionally vulnerable, feel safe.  They must be confident that their caregivers and allied staff will provide whatever assistance they may need at any given time.  Moreover, families must trust that their caregivers will do what they say they will do. 

“Life is all about choices,” and assisted living provides options to seniors who would otherwise be left alone in their homes comforted only by their TV’s and the volunteer courier who delivers a meal.   Inside a community, people may choose how interactive (or not) they will continue to be. Even better, they may choose their personnel journey to enjoy life within a protective environment despite their physical infirmities.   We live in a fast paced technical world making it impossible to care for our parents as in previous generations.  Our family units are often scattered geographically.  On the other hand, a parent, who lives with their children, may still spend most of the day alone while their caregivers are scrambling in different directions trying to keep pace with their jobs and ever increasing daily responsibilities.  

The majority of assisted living residents enjoy individual apartments with private baths.  They are surrounded with their own furniture and keepsakes representing their fondest memories.  Nearby, down the hall or in the social areas, they may discover neighbors with similar issues and interests.  No more worries about mowing the lawn, grocery shopping, or house cleaning.   In an assisted living community life is about living in the moment and enjoying it.  A lifestyle director, with a cheerleader’s enthusiasm, is on hand to encourage even the most dissident to play bridge or cribbage, celebrate birthdays, or attend educational forums.  Communities design programs that include outside excursions and offer residents an opportunity to engage in philanthropic activities.   Subsequently, for some, the interaction creates a surrogate family where through friendship and love, one can feel alive again.

The negative pictures presented by the news media are discouraging to all of us who work or have worked in a community.  I am confident that I can speak for the other dedicated administrators when I say that each one does his or her best every day, 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week.  It is a priority to ensure that every resident receives the best and most personalized care possible. Keep in mind that a director doesn’t do it alone. During my tenure, I was blessed with dedicated department heads whose efforts far exceeded their job descriptions. None of them escaped without uncompensated overtime, and they worked as a team curtailing emergencies that included fires, floods, and natural disasters.  As managers they filled in for call outs, and they remained on call day and night to solve problems (big or small).  Despite the demands of their personal lives, they willing came to the building to address an issue that otherwise would have escalated.    And Resident Care Directors, directors of nursing, were free from their responsibilities only when they were out of the country with no connecting bars on their cell phones.  

My entire staff included care associates, housekeepers, lifestyle partners, maintenance assistants and wait staff. They worked with the residents daily on a close and personal basis, and they were acutely aware of who needed extra attention or supervision.  I can also boast about individuals who worked extra shifts, and those who shuffled between departments performing double duties to compensate for a shortage of staff during illness and call-outs.   Those same individuals often skipped breaks and delayed meals to maintain the highest quality of care.  Every day they volunteered hugs to ease pain and offered unsolicited, soothing words of comfort.

The stories referencing the mishaps reflect a miniscule segment of the day to day living in a community.  “Every morning, close to a million American seniors wake up in their assisted living community, have an active and engaging day in a safe, independent and social environment.  Those same residents have the opportunity to go to sleep that night eager to greet a new day,” said Rick Grimes, President of the Assisted Living Federation of America (Business Wire July 24, 2013). “That fact may not make for a sensational headline, but it’s the reality of assisted living.” 

 I could never predict, what might happen on any given day in my community. My staff and I had to be prepared for almost anything, and we had to react appropriately.  My communities averaged at least 120 residents (67 percent average over 85 according the National Center for Assisted Living), and often their needs were as unpredictable as a Florida hurricane.   We made every effort to maintain the momentum, but at times, something would inadvertently fall through the cracks.  When it did, we did our best to immediately address the problem and to learn from the experience.

A series of unusual events prompted my introduction to assisted living.   After counseling prospective families and residents as a leasing agent for less than a week, I understood that I was finally where I was supposed to be. In less than 6 months, I eagerly accepted the position as executive director.  Now that I've retired, I feel obligated to add my personal observations to offset the infamous journalistic abuse, and to dedicate this post to the hundreds of employees, residents, and families who helped to make my career a success.

P.S.  I have included some URL’s to highlight the good times and good smiles shared in three assisted living communities.