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How the Sacred Cows of Senior Living Squash Innovation and Growth in Your Team

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By Sara Kyle

There are absolutes in senior living, and they will never change. One of those is death. People age and pass away in our communities. Death and dying never get easier despite the time spent in the field.  

The reason: humans care and love deeply. People who impact our lives, even if for a few days change us and our view of life.

In organizations -- when absolutes happen over and over again -- it is customary to make a “policy”, a “procedure”, or a “best practice”. Sounds like a good idea and a way to drive efficiency and routine, eliminating one-off communication or explanation. This is the business side of senior living and while sometimes essential, other times the business side eclipses the human, soft side of working with people, especially when people die.

Disciplined for What?

I recently received an email from a team member who had been written up for disciplinary action. And I was so thankful she had the courage to stand up for herself, pointing out the absurdity in the write-up and declining to sign and admit fault.

The Backstory

For 20 years in this community each time a resident died, a live single, stemmed red rose is placed in a vase on top of the piano in the dining room. This is how it always has been done and will always be done because it is an expected community tradition.

Except that . . . 

Problem 1: It has always been done, blah, blah, blah.  

Problem 2: The resident who passed away is now being honored the exact same way as everyone else for the past 20 years.  

The Big Question

Are we honoring a tradition or an individual person?

Why was she written up?  

Good question.

The team member was unable to find a live, single stemmed red rose, something that has been an ongoing problem in this rather small Arkansas community. In addition, a single stemmed red rose, deemed to be the only acceptable way of doing this, is a bit expensive because it is not readily available.

Wanting to honor the resident and mindful of cost and difficulty of getting red roses, she found a beautiful artificial red rose to place in the vase.  

To me, this made perfect sense. She would not have to run around town wildly trying to find a live red rose, and the artificial one looks beautiful. Makes perfect sense, right?

Except, maybe not. 

Expectations

Families have come to expect this honoring single rose tradition, residents expect it. How could we possibly deviate? Except that we really needed to in this case, and in many cases in senior living, step back and ask ourselves some hard questions:

  • Does everyone really feel honored by a red rose?
  • Is there a better, more personalized way to honor the passing of a resident?

In My Own Life

I am thankful my husband knows me well enough to know I don’t particularly care for red roses. They are not “me”, which makes me come back to my question.

How do we honor residents who have left their mark with us in a community?  

Enforcing the Wrong Thing

Are you enforcing policies or reporting good staff because they tried something new or deviated from the proposed 10, 15, 20-year-old protocol?

I have to remind myself as a director overseeing a large program, I learn more from listening than I do from mandating. The exciting thing is that there are a lot of teachers in our presence; staff, residents, families, volunteers, etc.

The first step in all of this is to ask the residents how they would like to be remembered in this community? How do we get better at addressing and honoring those we cherish as a business practice and as a human practice? What if it looked different each time someone passed away? Is there anything wrong with that? Would it take away the ability to be able to measure it or check off that we followed the protocol for when someone passes away?

When I die in senior living, I would hope that the playlist of my “all time favs” is heard from the speakers, a sandalwood candle produces my favorite aroma, and a picture with my biggest smile sits on top of a piano, with a single stem stargazer lily.  

To the industry, we have to get better at running a “people business” and recognize no two people are the same. At some point are we willing to sacrifice efficiency to make sure we better meet the basic human need of love and compassion?

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