Elite and Essential: How Benchmark, AlerisLife Are Building Memory Care Workforces Amid a Labor Crisis

As labor markets face turmoil in the wake of the Great Resignation and other pandemic-related shocks, new worker expectations are causing memory care operators to change their understanding of what matters to employees.

“The workforce is changing just like our customers are changing, so we have to stay up-to-date on what is current,” AlerisLife (Nasdaq: ALR) National Director of Memory Care AJ Cipperly said at Senior Housing News’ recent BRAIN conference in Chicago.

For Cipperly, benefits such as flexible schedules aren’t going away soon.


“We’re seeing a shift … it’s not as much about work/life balance as it is about how work fits into my life,” she said.

Newton, Massachusetts-based AlerisLife recognizes the value in having an in-community memory care leader for the team to turn to, according to Cipperly, a sentiment echoed by Benchmark Senior Living Corporate Director of Memory Care Michelle Tristani.

For Tristani, frontline associates at Waltham, Massachusetts-based Benchmark need a manager in place who cares about the lives of the staff and wants to help them through the difficult task of caring for the most vulnerable of resident populations.


“Having that memory care specialist in the community, on the floor, coaching in the moment, supporting the front-line, in the mix with the front-line and assisting with residents — that’s going to really speak to the success of the neighborhood,” Tristani said at SHN’s BRAIN conference.

Both AlerisLife and Benchmark have rolled out plans to better train, better recognize, and better understand the needs of the current workforce to staff the present and to plan for the future of the industry.

For senior living operators, the competition for workers from mainstream retailers is causing a drive to improve benefits, pay and culture for new workers.

“There are so many jobs out there, we’re not only competing with senior living… we’re competing with Target,” said Tristani.

It starts with making the team feel essential.

Competency and compensation

AlerisLife, which operates communities, is focusing first on shoring up operational excellence by honoring and rewarding tenured staffers as much as possible before moving on to innovative solutions, according to Cipperly. 

“It’s kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs … if we’re not providing valuable, timely merit increases, if we’re not [celebrating] and honoring years of consistent service, people aren’t going to stay because those basic needs aren’t met,” Cipperly said. “So you can roll out all of these sexy, innovative things that just won’t matter at the end of the day.”

Benchmark aims to do something similar with a career ladder program, according to Tristani. The ladder is set up to celebrate employee success at specific intervals that will create a framework for various levels of certification training and skill competency. 

“It’s one thing to have dementia knowledge and awareness; it’s another to be competent,” she said.

And, while recognizing the tremendous difficulties and challenges in the assisted living space, Cipperly stated clearly that working in memory care is a different level.

“In assisted living, we are helping our residents with certain parts of their day. In memory care, we’re helping residents throughout their entire day,” she said. “Because of that, it requires an additional skillset … therefore it should be reflected in wage and title.”

Cipperly and AlerisLife are working to create a new job description for those working in memory care that will come with additional training, competencies and certifications, and along with that, increased compensation.

“Working in memory care should be an honor. It would be considered this elite thing … it should be considered a promotion,” Cipperly said.

Getting the most out of agency labor, universal workers

Using temporary agency-staffed labor is one of the most painful strains felt by senior living operators in the pandemic landscape. While many, like AlerisLife and Benchmark, have made great strides in phasing out temporary workers, agency labor is still a fact of life.

But, getting the most out of each agency-placed worker can lead to long-term benefits, according to Cipperly.

“We all agree that using agencies is expensive, it’s not something that we want to do,” Cipperly said. Her aim now is to ensure that each agency worker is getting the most out of their time with AlerisLife.

AJ Cipperly of AlerisLife

“We know that a lot of the time, using agency staff doesn’t produce good outcomes. The reason for that isn’t because the agency is bad or the team member is bad,” she said. “It’s truly because there are so many different faces. They don’t know the residents as deeply as our team members and they’re not family with our process or our culture.”

AlerisLife is combating this knowledge gap by creating reference cards with details about each resident including their respective idiosyncrasies and care plans.

Another solution Cipperly noted is to pull a worker from an assisted living shift to a memory care shift and then fill the assisted living slot with an agency-placed worker. While an AL staffer won’t know the residents either, “at least they’re familiar with our culture or processes or systems,” said Cipperly.

Benchmark believes there are other ways to get the most out of agency labor. For example, Tristani suggests keeping an eye out for agency-placed workers who are consistent and able to wear multiple hats.

“It’s up to us to work with that agency to see if [we ought to] buy them out of their non-compete and if we can get them to join our team,” said Tristani. “We’ve had several associates say ‘Hey, I like the benefits here and I’d like to join full-time.”

Connecting tenured staff, new hires, residents

By creating a thriving culture at the community level, and making prospective hires more knowledgeable about the benefits of working in senior living, both Cipperly and Tristani hope to not only get more workers through their first 90 days but to retain them for years to come.

“The knowledge gap is huge,” said Cipperly. “Closing that gap is going to not only help us keep people, but also help people to choose this industry.”

AlerisLife partners with nursing schools and CNA programs to develop a recruiting pipeline of sorts, but recruiting – and training – needs to start earlier in education, according to Cipperly.

“We’ve got to get into middle schools and elementary schools to expose and educate kids about the benefits and opportunities of working with this population and how they can benefit from it,” she said.

Benchmark’s Connect First training program prioritizes human connection in the communities so that caregivers respond in the best way possible.

Connecting with the most vulnerable of patients is one great draw to the memory care sector, according to Tristani. But with the outbreak of Covid-19 and the years-long mask mandate, residents and staff aren’t connecting the way they used to.

Michelle Tristani of Benchmark Senior Living

Tristani – making it inarguably clear that she supports the medical need for masking – opined for a future wherein residents and staff can share facial expressions again.

Her hopes are backed up by research. Researchers at the University of North Carolina studied this effect of non-verbal communication by comparing how patients felt when their surgeons wore a see-through plastic mask compared with when their surgeon’s face was covered.

The researchers found that surgeons who wore clear masks were considered better communicators, more trustworthy and more empathetic. In memory care, the non-verbal aspects of a smile may carry even more weight.

“Let’s face it, [as much as 90%] of all communication is nonverbal,” said Tristani. “And my hope for the next year or so is that we’re not going to have to pull that mask down to provide whole-face communication and as a result, we’re not going to see that more rapid progression of cognitive decline.”

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