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Breaking the Mold: The Power of Positive Deviance in Senior Communities

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By Adriane Berg

On March 29th Steve Moran launched Senior Housing Forum’s first Brunch and Learn. One of the presenting issues was how to introduce a new hire to your organization. I thought it was the perfect moment to trot out your Positive Deviant, the Rocket Man or Woman of any senior community.

Whether a resident, a family member, or a staff member, identifying and engaging your Positive Deviant can move an organization forward in many ways:

  • Increasing ROI

  • Converting more prospects into residents

  • Improving staff quality and job satisfaction

  • Increasing resident participation in activities, volunteering, and community engagement

Who Is This Magical Person Being Called the Positive Deviant (PD)?

The PD is a rare type of organic leader, unselfconscious innovators who would never call themselves influencers, but they are.

The concept hatched in 1990, when Jerry Sternin, Director of Save the Children in Vietnam, needed to find a realistic way to feed malnourished children in Vietnamese villages . . . on a non-existent budget. 

Instead of studying what was wrong, he considered what was right. He identified mothers who knew how to find protein from plankton and feed their kids on a schedule. These mothers became the leaders and teachers of the others, and the children’s nutritional levels soared.

From then on, the concept of the Positive Deviant stood for a leader in the community, someone who was an outlier, who did things differently, positively, and successfully. Corporations now look for top executives who are Positive Deviants, to propel goals forward.

Getting back to Steve Moran’s Brunch and Learn topic, it would be refreshing to have the most innovative and enthusiastic resident greet each new hire. 

Positive Deviance and Problem-Solving in Senior Communities

Positive Deviants are a catalyst of change through their unique but practical insights. For example, a client of ours, (SeeYou Link.com), offers seniors access to video calls, email, music, cognitive fitness games, and medication management through remote task management. 

When See You Link first launched, the facilities placed the computer in an open community room. Very few used it.

In interviewing the three PD users, the reason emerged. Residents did not like other residents seeing their private photos and videos. The PDs devised home-made screens . . . a $49.00 privacy screen solved the problem for everyone.

The PD May Lead to Facility Design that Breaks the Mold

A stunning example of effective budget-friendly design dictated by the PD is Good Grief, a world leader in grief counseling for children. 

The observation of children who came regularly and reported getting the most out of the process led to the realization that releasing anger was a top therapeutic goal. The result was the padding of walls in one room with soft toys and a punching bag. The Volcano Room is now a favorite space that two children at a time with supervision visit for five minutes at each session to just let go.

The Importance of Observation

Positive Deviants do not announce themselves. You must find them. Take the case of a senior community that had a well-appointed arts and crafts room, but whenever I visited to consult, it was usually empty. 

“Do you encourage people to use the room?” I asked. “Of course, we offer sessions every day. We even have a community artist available for lectures and training. But no one shows up.”

On one occasion I noticed a man painting alone. I asked him about his work. I discovered that he would “sneak” into the room on his own because he did not like to work in a class. I suggested that the residence offer individual schedules rather than only group classes. The schedule for the “artist studio” was full in three weeks.

Identifying the PD In Your Community 

  • Who is participating in activities to a greater extent than others? 

  • Who is making reasonable suggestions, and sometimes demanding change?

  • Are his or her caregivers giving exceptional support duplicable by other caregivers?”

Once you have identified the PD and agreed that the problem they are solving is systemic, take advantage by:

  • Modeling the environmental or design changes they are making on their own

  • Accessing the resources and tools enlisted by the PD to solve the problem

  • Encouraging their unique productive attitude

For example, an assisted living community in Hawaii wanted to build a nature space for their memory care unit but had little funds in their budget. They observed a few family members bringing plants as gifts to their loved ones and watering the plants each week. By providing a communal space, they were able to create a family-funded, barter garden that attracted many more families to participate. 

Next Steps -- Provide Fertile Ground for PDs to Flourish

This includes:

  • Resident and staff joint committees to identify problems

  • Forums and newsletters that elicit problem-solving

  • Willingness to listen to and implement PD ideas

  • Protocol for PDs to mentor and train others 

In short, your goal is seeing your residents and families, not just professionals, as problem-solving experts and facilitating environments for Breaking the Mold.

Adriane Berg is a keynote speaker on successful aging and consultant to senior communities. She is a co-author of Breaking The Mold, available to Senior Housing Forum readers at https://adrianeberg.me/spokesperson/breaking-the-mold/ Adriane hosts, Generation Bold Radio, www.generationboldradio.us.

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