Discovery Senior Living, Sunshine Retirement Retool Memory Care for New Generation of Residents

Memory care is among the senior living industry’s most quickly changing sectors, and each year operators gain new tools to delay and treat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

With so much new evidence on memory care best practices, not to mention a new generation of consumers on the way, many senior living providers including Discovery Senior Living and Sunshine Retirement are constantly overhauling their programs to best meet the rapidly changing landscape.

Both providers have taken steps to reimagine and relaunch their memory care programs from the inside-out, including by shaking up how they train staff and recruit new prospective team members.


Starting from within and evaluating staffing needs allowed both to find areas where their memory care programs could be improved from within before incorporating new elements.

At the same time, memory care residents are arriving in communities with greater behavioral needs, and often in a later stage of dementia. That underscores the need for operators to change what they are doing today, according to Mindy Podraza, corporate director of health care at Sunshine Retirement.

“We’re fooling ourselves if we think our business is going to continue as usual,” she said during a panel discussion at the Senior Housing News BRAIN event in Chicago.


Training for a new reality

Senior living operators can and do put considerable thought into relaunching their memory care programs for a new era. But operators’ ability to do that hinges on the ability of workers to deliver on them.

“You can have the best program in place with all the bells and whistles and technology but if you don’t train those caregivers that program is going to mean nothing at all,” said Podraza. “Your focus should be on those caregivers and coaching them in the immediate moment.”

The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare many new challenges for senior living providers and helped to shrink the industry’s pool of available workers. For both Discovery and Sunshine, that has made it all more important to better hire and train associates.

When Dawn Platt joined Discovery in early 2021 as corporate director of memory care, she brought an occupational profiling base to the program to better define the cognitive levels in Discovery’s 113 communitines.

Discovery’s memory care program, known as Shine, is rooted in person-centered care and evidence-based programming and techniques. The program is a combination of neuroplasticity and Montessori principles.

“What I found when I came to Discovery [in 2021] was that, for the first time in my career, I had a new workforce and things I had learned in the past were not going to work,” Platt said. “So I began to look at the model we were delivering and training in and I began to diversify it.”

Shine is based on six “points of focus,” one of which is training for staff.

Platt helped reimagine the company’s memory care programming by deploying both internet-based education and live training.,. At each community, executive teams developed a “micro-training” library with streaming videos that workers can access as they progress through training at their own pace.

And as senior living operators’ memory care programs change, so too does the nature of the workers they hire,, Podraza added. Younger workers are more inclined to complete training exercises on their smartphone than in years past, and communities should work with, not against, those preferences.

“Coaching and counseling is the best way that we have found in the near-term that has worked,” Podraza said regarding engaging with new staff members.

At Discovery, Platt likened the company’s ongoing training for caregivers to reaccreditation of a nurse’s license.Instead of training once per year, workers re-up their skills on a rolling basis. Doing so helps them stay current on the latest techniques.

“We are constantly training, we are constantly offering extra credentials and other opportunities to grow,” she said. “We have to empower and trust our caregivers and I think that goes a long way.”

Sunshine Retirement’s Hope Blooms memory care program incorporates many of the same aspects as Shine, including life enrichment programs to help residents move through assisted living and memory care as their dementia progresses into later stages. The company also puts a heavy emphasis on training from the start.

Of course, training is less valuable if an employee leaves within their first year. So Sunshine Retirement, like many operators, gives them career paths as one way to boost retention. At the same time, in-house workers are cheaper than agency staff, which many operators are using to fill gaps in their staffing schedules.

“We’re rewarding engagement and growth with dollars,” Podraza said.

New resident profile

Both Platt and Podraza noted that the residents arriving in senior living communities today are different from those who came even before the pandemic.

Platt said Discovery communities are seeing more residents living with dementia that have mixed causes; and younger residents, some with early onset dementia.

That younger resident profile has pushed Discovery to pivot to offering programming aimed at more “intellectual” cognitive engagement for residents, such as skill set training, music therapy, art therapy or horticultural therapy.

As residents with higher acuity needs come to communities, Podraza said it was up to communities to involve the families earlier in the process prior to move-in. To do that, providers must be transparent and careful not to over-promise care offerings.

“It’s that family interaction that you have to have initially,” she said.

The integration of senior living and technology has accelerated in recent years, as operators look to find new ways to boost staff efficiency and resident wellbeing.

Integrating technology into memory care programming can help promote better resident health outcomes and provide staff with new tools to use on the job.

Platt said memory care technology needs to have a two-fold purpose: To be outcome based and to be user-friendly for quick integration with staff.

“I have to be sure the technology that I use in that market fits the culture of the team that I have,” Platt said.

Families also want more access to their loved ones, and technology can play a role there, too. , SpecificallyPodraza said more families are asking to install cameras in residents’ rooms for remote monitoring and fall-detection, something that wasn’t as prevalent just a few years ago.

At the end of the day, no two senior living communities are alike. That is a challenge, and also an opportunity, Platt said.

“The people who live in the different markets are absolutely not the same,” she said. “And so I think that we need to ask ourselves, is there something more we can do?”

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