Four ways to creatively disrupt senior living — for all the right reasons

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Ann Lovell
Ann Lovell

On the walls of LifeSpire of Virginia's corporate office hangs a collection of old photographs dating back to the mid-1940s — the genesis of the organization of what was then known as Virginia Baptist Homes.

One photo in particular stands out: A group of senior men and women are shucking corn. The group lived at The Culpeper, the very first Virginia Baptist Home.

It wasn't necessarily unusual in the early days of the organization — a faith-based, nonprofit senior living provider now based in Richmond, VA — for residents to provide a little “sweat equity” in exchange for their room and board. Shucking corn may even have been a social opportunity. The faces in the photo certainly appear happy. (See below.)

But times have changed. As baby boomers move into retirement, today's seniors expect — even demand — a “five-star lifestyle,” complete with the highest-quality dining, programming and customer service experiences. Many traditional faith-based retirement communities may struggle to respond to the needs of this “younger generation” of retirees, says Peter Robinson, vice president of marketing and public relations for LifeSpire.

“If we can't keep up with resident demands, resident satisfaction suffers,” Robinson says. “If resident satisfaction suffers, it isn't long before we fail to remain competitive as an organization.”

In addition to resident satisfaction, the ability to attract and retain quality staff in today's competitive job market is a second issue facing faith-based senior living organizations.

According to a 2016 article by Lois Bowers in McKnight's Senior Living, the senior living industry will need to recruit 1.2 million new employees by 2025.

As the report referenced and Megan Hackett, LifeSpire's corporate director of human resources, point out, senior living communities face labor shortages across disciplines, she says.

“The challenges in the labor market affect recruiting and retention for all types of positions in our organization,” Hackett says. “Senior living organizations, more so than other industries, must think outside the box to recruit and retain talent.”

LifeSpire CEO Jonathan Cook believes the solution to addressing these issues lies in providing “creative disruption” to the senior living industry in four key areas: resident care, dining, hospitality and team member incentives.

1. Resident care.

“Imagine a person you don't know who knocks on your door at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and proclaims, ‘I'm here to give you your bath.'” Cook says. “You'd be shocked, right? And probably just a tad apprehensive.”

Traditionally, the culture of hospitals and nursing homes has been just that: ordering patient or resident care around staff needs and efficiencies rather than resident preferences, Cook explains. Today, that culture is changing as families demand more personalized care for their parents and the upcoming generation of baby boomers realizes they may one day be residents. As a result, retirement communities that provide “resident- or person-centered care” gain an advantage over those who structure care more traditionally.

“The expectation of seniors is evolving. Retirement communities must offer vibrant social activities, restaurant-quality food and excellent services that revolve around resident choice,” Cook says.

One example of resident-centered care at LifeSpire communities is a wellness initiative called “Vibrance,” Robinson explains. LifeSpire partnered with the National Institute of Fitness and Sport to create a wellness initiative focused on individual choice.

Studies have shown that an individual's sense of purpose, joy, growth and community improves longevity and overall satisfaction, especially when we afford people choices,” Robinson says. “Vibrance is all about individual choices in wellness.”

2. Dining.

Cook-to-order dining is another way in which senior living communities can creatively disrupt the status quo for the betterment of their residents, Cook says.

The Chesapeake, a LifeSpire of Virginia community in Newport News, VA, is the first LifeSpire community to undergo significant renovations to its dining program. As of March, residents were able to choose from several dining venues, including an updated formal dining room, a bistro, a pub and a café. All food is cooked to order, with several available “grab-and-go” options, explains Tammy Slowikowski, The Chesapeake's director of culinary services.

“With this renovation, we're repositioning our dining room to create new venues that better align with residents' busy lifestyles and eclectic tastes,” Slowikowski says.

Lakewood, a LifeSpire community in Richmond's west end, also recently modified its dinner offerings to provide cook-to-order food. The new system requires reservations, which may inconvenience some residents, admits Barrett Way, Lakewood's executive director. But overall food quality and customer satisfaction have significantly improved.

Rebecca Crutcher, the daughter of current Lakewood residents, noticed the improvements enough that she recently emailed her compliments to Lakewood's chefs.

“My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have all been residents of (Lakewood), and I have been coming to visit and eat in the dining room since 1977,” Crutcher wrote.  “I want to let you all know that the menu and food choices have been nothing like in the past, and I want you to hear from someone who has been coming for over 40 years that the improvements … are absolutely exceptional. …I can honestly say I prefer coming to (Lakewood) for a meal now over taking (my parents) out to one of the great Richmond restaurants!”  

3. Hospitality.

Offering exceptional hospitality is a third creative disruptor to the traditional senior living experience, explains Sally San Soucie, LifeSpire's director of culture enrichment. As a member of LifeSpire's corporate team, San Soucie is responsible for instilling a culture of hospitality unprecedented in today's continuing care retirement communities.

“Not long ago, retirement communities had the stigma of being sad and lonely places,” San Soucie says. “The team was expected only to provide security, sustenance and nursing care. As an industry, we were focused on what was the matter with residents, instead of finding out what mattered to residents.”

As baby boomers age into retirement, the paradigm of senior living is shifting, San Soucie explains, noting that “the bar has been raised.”

“We recognize that a customer service issue represents more than just an inconvenience to our residents; it affects their quality of life,” she says. “Our goal is to bring five-star hospitality and customer service to every aspect of senior living.”

With these goals in mind, San Soucie developed a hospitality curriculum for senior housing communities called, “Leave Them Smiling!” Using best practices from Disney and the Ritz-Carlton, the curriculum provides hospitality training for staff in dining, nursing, facilities, maintenance and other aspects of the senior living experience.

4. Team member incentives.

A fourth disruptor to the senior living industry focuses on attracting and retaining top talent. Although this element applies to human resources practices rather than resident-centered care, it is no less crucial to the future sustainability of faith-based retirement communities, Cook says.

“We can't serve residents without a quality team,” Cook says. “Consequently, our goal is to position our communities as the employer of choice in every market.”

To facilitate that, LifeSpire recently unveiled its “Total Rewards” program, an over-arching compensation philosophy designed to guide the organization going forward. The philosophy focuses on four integrated and multi-faceted elements: compensation, benefits, performance and recognition, and development and career opportunities.

Hackett, who helped design the program, recognizes the importance of Total Rewards to attracting and retaining talent in today's competitive job market.

“By providing a competitive compensation and benefits package along with opportunities for career development and recognition, we hope to tap into the growing pool of millennials in nursing and other positions and provide incentives to retain quality team members,” Hackett says.

According to a December 2017 column by McKnight's Senior Living Editorial Director John O'Connor, writing for sister publication McKnight's Long-Term Care News, Hackett may be on to something. Referencing a study published in Health Affairs, O'Connor reports that millennials may be the solution to the growing nursing shortage.

“Young adults comprising the millennial generation (those born between 1982 and 2000) are almost twice as likely as boomers to choose a nursing career,” he writes.

They could be attracted by the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives, the flexibility to change positions and geographic locations, earnings stability and lower unemployment rates.

The same factors also may attract millennials to senior living in particular, and “making a difference” to senior adults is one thing faith-based retirement communities can honestly leverage, Cook says.

“Our vision is to provide vibrant living where faith, wellness and community flourish,” Cook says. “Ultimately, our ability to provide quality, compassionate care to our residents and to invest in both our residents and our team members in a faith-based environment distinguishes us from all the rest.”

Ann Lovell is corporate director of communications for LifeSpire of Virginia, which operates four continuing care retirement communities in Virginia: The Chesapeake in Newport News, The Culpeper in Culpeper, The Glebe in Daleville and Lakewood in Richmond. For more information, email alovell@lifespireliving.org or call (804) 521-9192.

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