Keeping it real distinguishes home from homelike

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Glenn Blacklock
Glenn Blacklock

It's not home if it's not real. You can't fake it.

A vendor once tried to sell me a music box that made bird-like sounds. I didn't buy it. I want to hear real birds sing. It's the vibrant life behind the song that makes the difference.

And no matter the packaging or how many advertising dollars are spent trying to convince me that Diet Dr. Pepper tastes like regular Dr. Pepper, my taste buds don't lie. I know the difference.

It's like that with home. Even the frailest among us knows the difference between homelike and home. Some senior living organizations strive to create a homier environment with new décor, more menu items and large group activities. But do the residents gain any real control over how their lives play out? No. And then these organizations wonder why things aren't working out as planned.

Action Pact's Household Model never strives to be homelike. We create home. At The Piper Assisted Living and Memory Care, we provide an intimate environment that is designed to encourage our residents to build a lifestyle for themselves, make real choices, seek purpose and continue their fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness.

Because like the bird's song, it's the vibrant life inside that makes it home.

Privacy as well as companionship are hallmarks of living at The Piper. Both are promoted by our unique “home-within-a-home” design. Residents have private, single apartments complete with a living room and small kitchen stocked with their favorite foods. The apartments are joined by a larger, furnished community household. Twenty residents share each household and are served by cross-trained, permanently assigned staff.

Working in the same household every day enables staff to form relationships with residents and get to know each one's likes and preferences. This is key to fostering vibrant living and wellness. We know, for example, that Mary (all names used are pseudonyms) likes to go to the casino and John wants oatmeal every morning. But we're ready to switch it up if she wants to go to the gym or if he decides to have banana pancakes.

Staff members assist residents with organized as well as spontaneous activities. Recently, three residents wanted to go shopping, so their household coordinator arranged to take the women the very next day.

The three Ps

I challenge people to think about the 3 Ps: the past, the present and the possible.

Learning from the elders and their loved ones about their past is vital — and especially important for our residents in our memory support households. So often, organizations focus on the good old days, but we need to focus on what is happening to us now and our possibilities. Think: What can I do that I've never tried before? What adventures can I go on?

Asking ourselves these questions is so important. But more importantly, at The Piper, our residents want to ask these questions, and we make it happen by offering new opportunities and activities to all residents.

We help whet an appetite for life. Has a resident always wanted to be an artist? Now is his or her chance. Gardening, biking, hosting, volunteering, dancing, joining a book club, bird watching — individuals set their own limits just as at home. If a favorite pastime or new interest requires going off The Piper campus, then we help get the residents there. And we always challenge folks to stretch their limits, to raise the bar on what they can do.

Real resident choice

Residents drive the flow of life in The Piper houses. They feel comfortable in their households and self-decorated apartments, so they speak up.

Our CEO, Steve Shields, is a concert pianist. Recently when he was in one of the households, Maude asked him to come back and play the next day. He did, and it was Maude who made it happen. And with the help of Steve and the household coordinator, a cocktail hour was organized to accompany the impromptu concert — complete with margaritas made by another resident using his favorite recipe.

On her own accord, Ella gives monthly presentations on a variety of topics. Often, the subject matter connects with the month at hand. Ireland was her St. Patrick's Day topic in March, and the history of ice cream was the theme during National Ice Cream Month, July. She prepares booklets on each topic to hand out. She coordinates with our chef to have snacks available that befit the theme. Her talks draw so many housemates, neighbors and friends from outside the building that we moved them out of her household into the larger community room.

Residents can sleep as late as they wish and eat the food they prefer, just as at home. We know not to wake up Molly too early. She likes to sleep until about noon before coming to the household kitchen for her made-to-order eggs. Before moving to The Piper, she was accustomed to early morning wake-up calls. Staff members at her former assisted living community sometimes burst into her room to change the bed sheets because “it was time.”

Engaged, not just busy

We aim to keep residents not just occupied, but engaged in meaningful pursuits that challenge their abilities. Gene lives in The Piper's memory support household. As a farmer used to working outside, he relied on his own ingenuity and craftsmanship to put food on the table. A suitable activity in another long-term care organization would have Gene merely rearranging tools in a toolbox. It would be a busy but meaningless activity for him. Instead, I took him outside to build garden boxes so that other residents can grow fresh flowers and vegetables. Gene doesn't remember much from moment to moment, but even in the midst of his dementia he recalls making those garden boxes.

If residents are isolated from the outside world and their loved ones, life isn't vibrant. The Piper residents' family members and friends — especially children — are always welcome, day or night, and invited to share a meal just as at home. Residents can host them in any of the numerous comfortable spaces in the household or entertain a more intimate gathering in their private apartments. One household hosted 50 guests for a Thanksgiving dinner that they helped plan. Just as in earlier years, the kids came to “Mom's house” for turkey.

Now what's more real than that?

Glenn Blacklock has been a consultant for the past eight years at Action Pact in Kansas City, KS, where he also is the community leader at The Piper Assisted Living and Memory Care. He holds has a Master of Arts degree in leisure studies, with emphasis in therapeutic recreation, from the University of Iowa and was administrator of Big Meadows Nursing Home in Savanna, IL, for 15 years.

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