By Sally Gelardin
Activity Coordinators are overworked and underpaid. Yet this role is crucial to the survival of assisted living communities.
Their responsibilities are endless, ranging from group facilitator to new community member intake, to volunteer coordinator, to event planner, newsletter editor, calendar administrator, front desk and driver supervisor, staff trainer. The list goes on and on.
The Pay Problem
The role by any title (i.e., Life, Memory Care Specialist, Lead Caregiver, Engage Life Program Instructor) generally pays around minimum wage, up to $35,000 to $45,000 a year (www.salary.com). As noted by a former Bay Area Activity Coordinator:
Isn't a living wage in the Bay Area over $50,000/year for an individual now? Cheaper apartments now cost $2,000 per month, which would take a 50% chunk out of a $50,000 annual salary, especially after taxes.
This is low pay for a role that requires a variety of creative, leadership, organizational, outreach, and administrative skills.
The Image Problem
Visualize yourself as a potential assisted living community member. How would you like to express yourself and be treated if you had increasing memory loss, were in psychological or physical pain, adjusting to a new environment, and experiencing later life or end-of-life challenges? How could the “Activity Coordinator” enhance your life? A better description of this role is “Engagement and Education” Coordinator or Director. How could the “Engagement and Education” leader enhance your daily life through meaningful engagement?
The Burnout Problem
No matter how creative, skilled, and resourceful the Engagement and Education ("E&E") Coordinator is, new responsibilities are continually added. As a result, often new employees in these positions quit after 3 to 12 months. The impact of a good E&E leader leaving an elder community can be disastrous. Do the time and costs it takes to recruit and train a promising new employee in this position make sense?
I lasted seven years, graduating to Regional Director of a Engagement and Education for a group of innovative elder communities. I loved my work and was up to any challenge or new responsibility. It was actually my favorite work experience from over 40 years of diverse careers. But when I fell asleep at the wheel while driving home from work, I realized that I had overstepped my limits.
Many of my colleagues are still there, struggling to maintain their roles or job hopping from one elder community to another. Even if they love their current position, they may use poor judgment and destroy their reputation or go through the motions of managing their role, balancing care of others with self-care, but really scared stiff they will end up as cared-for, rather than as care-giver.
What’s the solution?
Activity Coordinators or Engagement and Education Coordinators, as in any other role, need to self-assess their strengths (i.e, skills, values, interests, personal style) and figure out how to apply these strengths to the position to meet the needs of their constituents (i.e., community members, families, managers).
In order to apply the philosophy of their workplace, they, like the community members they serve, need to be valued and supported by management, participate in decision-making, and earn a decent wage. They need to identify and use their preferred skills, recruiting other staff, as well as volunteers and consultants to fill the many needs of the community. They need time each day for rest and revitalization, as well as ongoing education and training.
An effective individual in this role is like an orchestra conductor or choreographer. Additional contributors to the engagement and education program may have additional ways of earning income on the side or may prefer to work part-time (i.e, parents of young children, older workers in transition, post-secondary students, artists, entertainers).
What if the individuals in this role had flexible work schedules, meeting some of their responsibilities off-site, such as scheduling of staff, volunteers, and vendors; newsletter production; entertainer recruitment; and event planning? The community would still need on-site employees to facilitate and/or supervise the facilitation of groups throughout each day. What if line staff was trained to meet some of these on-site responsibilities with a career ladder and financial incentive?
Like other staff, Engagement and Education Coordinators need to have an opportunity to grow in their workplace. Perhaps, in time, they would like to explore other roles within the organization or within the field. These concepts may require the short-term investment of money, education, and planning. But the result could be spectacular, to the benefit of all involved. There may be other considerations of which I am not aware, so feedback would be appreciated.
Photo taken at August 23, 2017 Creative Aging SF Meeting, Senior Access, San Rafael, California.