These days, it’s not uncommon for senior living communities to open with bistros, movie theaters, yoga studios or other perks you might find at a nice hotel. But as some providers across the U.S. adopt high-end amenities and hotel-like customer service, are they losing sight of what’s best for their residents?
Maybe, says Jill Vitale-Aussem, COO at Cappella Living Solutions. Capella, which operates under parent organization Christian Living Communities, manages two communities in Colorado with three more on the way.
Vitale-Aussem’s working theory is that leaning too heavily on resort-style features and operations can backfire on providers. Instead, senior living communities require a more “special approach.”
“Hospitality is definitely important as a piece of the puzzle, but we need a modified approach so that we don’t undermine purpose, community and independence,” she says.
It takes a village, not a hotel
Hotels and resorts are centered on comfort, relaxation and worry-free living, but they don’t reflect reality, Vitale-Aussem tells Senior Housing News. After all, people have arguments, get scared or anxious, fall ill and even die in senior living communities. Those facts of life shouldn’t be swept under the rug to maintain the resort-style experience.
“I always wanted to think of my communities as these shiny happy perfect places like Disney,” she explains. “But that’s not how people function in the real world.”
And giving your residents everything under the sun can actually do them more harm than good, Vitale-Aussem says. For instance, emphasizing customer service over independence can disempower residents by creating a “doing for” atmosphere, rather than giving them the chance to define their own lives.
“We need to look at ourselves as small villages versus resorts,” she says. “The hospitality model teaches us that your problems shouldn’t be your customer’s problems, but the community approach says we’re all in this together.”
Creating a strong bond among residents can also help cut down on social cliques, bullying, ageism or ableism, all common problems in the senior living industry.
Still, it can be tough to foster these kind of relationships, especially when residents are used to hearing that the customer is always right. One way to get people working together is to “blur the lines” between employees and residents a little.
For example, instead of solving all of their residents’ problems or fulfilling their requests, providers should simply give them the tools they need to work with neighbors and find a solution.
“When somebody brings you an idea, it’s saying, would you like to volunteer to investigate this?” Vitale-Aussem explains.
Community makes unity
One example of what a community-led effort might look like can be found at Holly Creek, a Christian Living Communities continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Denver. There, seniors collaborate on HCRK, a resident-run internal radio station that serves as a communication hub and social conduit.
Each week, residents program playlists, host radio shows and make announcements, says Holly Creek Senior Executive Director Jayne Keller. And they do it with very little assistance.
“The residents, who take shifts and schedule themselves, do all the announcements,” Keller says. “What’s on the menu, whose birthday is it, special announcements, things like that.”
At Clermont Park, another Christian Living Communities property in Denver, residents take part in something called “Clermont College.” The program invites residents, family members and staffers to teach and attend their own classes, which range in subject matter from “How to Create a Cupcake Masterpiece” to “Conservation and Invasive Species.”
Through collaborative efforts like these, residents come together to have fun and take ownership of something they’re proud of.
“It’s the residents being in charge of their own lives and having that feeling you get when you’re part of making something happen,” Vitale-Aussem says.
Written by Tim Regan