‘Toughest Workers in the Building’: How Discovery Senior Living, Sunshine, Ally Elevate Memory Care Staffing

The memory care sector of the senior living industry is expected to see a big uptick in demand in the coming years — as long as operators can keep their heads above water with regard to staffing. 

Operators in 2023 have laid ambitious plans to recover and grow beyond pre-pandemic occupancy and margins. Workers are the key to executing on those plans.

In the age of the pandemic, senior living staffers have their work cut out for them. That is especially true for those working in memory care, given the high acuity level of residents and the complexity of the job. And yet, memory care workers are not always celebrated for their specialization, nor are they properly trained for it.


Memory care operators including Ally Senior Living, Discovery Senior Living and Sunshine Retirement Living have in recent years put extra planning into hiring, training and retaining memory care workers. What they arrived at is that workers need to be not only compensated and treated fairly, but that they must feel like valuable members of a competent team.

“Caregivers in memory care are the toughest workers in the building,” said Ally Senior Living CEO Dan Williams during a panel discussion at the recent SHN BRAIN memory care conference in Washington, D.C. “You have to build a culture and show them that they are heroes — it’s essential now.”

Tough job made easier

Senior living caregivers often must wear many hats in their line of work. For memory care workers, versatility is a necessity given that residents have both physical and emotional care needs.


That can sometimes serve as a barrier for staff, who aren’t always equipped to handle those needs, according to Holly Soresso, Community Development Director at Sunshine Retirement.

“Your average healthcare worker does not have the tools to manage the psychiatric and emotional components of this care. This is why we see a high turnover with memory care staffing,” Soresso said during the panel discussion at BRAIN. “Between that and culture-building, I think that that’s where we really need to provide a lot of aid for onboarding staff.”

Soresso (left) and Williams; photo for Aging Media

Between six and 12 months ago, the memory care sector’s biggest challenge was getting the right number of job applicants, Williams said. In the latter half of 2023, the challenge has shifted from recruitment to retention.

Regardless of the reason, short-staffed memory care operators risk entering a kind of feedback loop that leads to a decline in both quality of staffing and quality of care. That in turn can lead to “devastating” impacts to both occupancy and financial health, Williams said.

“You’ve got staff working double shifts, and by the end of their shift, they’re worn out and you’re possibly having to call in agency [workers],” he said. “You start having service failures, and when you have service failures, you have families that are upset.”

During the darkest days of the pandemic, many memory care operators lost sight of their systems and processes as they fought for survival, according to Discovery Senior Living Corporate Director of Memory Care Dawn Platt.

That prompted Platt to go back to the basics with regard to staff expectations. She wrote down in detail multiple facets of the job with clear instructions for new staff, and ensured that agency workers complied with the standards set by the company’s Shine memory care program.

“That really helped bring value to what we had to work with,” Platt said. “And I’m seeing that it’s getting better.”

Professionalizing the role

One strategy that Ally, Discovery and Sunshine have employed to success is rooted in training and career development. All three take the philosophy that if workers are properly trained and invested in their careers as memory care workers, they are much more equipped to weather the job’s challenges.

Caregivers in memory care are not always required to have special certifications to work on the job. And no matter the level of certification, “a lot of the state testing programs ignore tremendously some of the education that I would consider vital for dementia care,” Soresso said.

That doesn’t mean fresh workers can’t do the job, but it does mean that senior living operators must take extra care to ensure that their workers are properly trained and onboarded. Soresso said she starts onboarding with a simple message: “We are an elite group of individuals in health care. Not everyone can do what we can do.”

Another part of that training is understanding that memory care residents have unique needs and circumstances. For example, although a memory care resident might sometimes curse at a worker, that also means they can “pray, sing and dance” on other occasions, Soresso said.

“By giving these types of tools to our floor staff, we’re helping change the lens at which they’re looking at a challenging moment,” she added. “That also helps create culture.”

Discovery’s Shine program includes multiple levels of training for its dedicated memory care workers. Training comes in the form of videos as well as a 300-page manual covering all of the sector’s ins and outs. Though Platt created the training materials in extensive detail, she stressed that workers don’t learn best in eight-hour sessions. That led her to create a “micro training library” where workers can learn in bits and pieces.

“It’s like a reference library on any behavior,” she said. “With that, we train our staff to be universal workers.”

Williams (left) and Platt; photo for Aging Media

That is also a strategy that Williams embraces. He said workers might learn in five or 10-minute intervals as opposed to over a matter of hours, and that such training is “critical” for smoother operations.

Above that, he noted that operators must be prepared to deliberately implement and build their corporate culture from the ground up. That is why Ally’s training includes “culture keys” — words like empowerment, autonomy and service — that help employees “dream big.”

“What you’re looking for is an employee who’s inspired and motivated — and that’s the bottom line,” Williams said. “If you get an employee, and if you can figure out the ways to get them motivated and inspired … then you’re going to have someone proud of their job.”

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