Jennifer Kelley headshot
Jennifer Kelley

At St. John’s, we view our residents as our greatest resource. Jane, a retired educator and St. John’s Meadows independent living resident for more than 12 years, certainly is no exception. I remember feeling energized and excited as I left her apartment one afternoon late last year. The ideas Jane shared with me were excellent — she had just given me the foundation for a wonderful resident-centered activity. I was ready to bring her idea to life. First, though, I had to go run a program that was scheduled for 2 o’clock.

Those of us who work in social programming know that this scenario describes a typical sequence throughout our day. Positive interactions with the older adults we serve often are sandwiched between the day-to-day tasks of running activities, ordering supplies, meeting with colleagues and planning for the coming weeks and months. At St. John’s Meadows, the Rochester, NY, area’s largest independent living community, and its sister community, Brickstone by St. John’s, our social recreation activities thrive on residents taking an active role in program development. When you view your residents as a part of your team, acknowledge them on a daily basis, and assure them that their voices are being heard, your activities program will flourish.

From the outside looking in, this process may seem simple: retrieve the suggestion from a resident and then make it happen. To run a truly successful resident-centered program, however, finding the idea is just the first step. In truth, every step in our process is equally as important and essential. Following every step will ensure that magic unfolds in a way that brings the greatest impact to the people throughout our community.


When Jane first approached me about having programming ideas, I knew her well enough to recognize that a face-to-face interaction would be more beneficial than a phone call. I knew how excited she was about sharing her thoughts with me, and I wanted her to feel heard and appreciated.

The process we follow begins with one very important step: get to know your residents. Listening to their life-stories, asking them about their families and acknowledging their new hairdo will mean everything to them and show them that you truly care. Your residents have lived interesting lives, have great ideas and want to be a part of the planning process within their community.


What I thought was Jane’s best idea — and the one she was most excited about — made a lot of sense to implement. Just because I lead social recreation, however, that does not mean I can just put this new program on the calendar and make it happen. I made sure to take a couple of minutes after my meeting with Jane (and before I hurried to run our next activity) to jot down some notes and cover the main points of our conversation. The next step was bringing that idea — a concept that was not yet fully baked — to the rest of the team.

Our social recreation team at St. John’s does not operate in a silo, and we know that no one department can move forward on a significant new program or process without support from other team members. We all value the perspectives of the other disciplines with which we work and constantly are collaborating with volunteer services, spiritual life, dining services and various other departments throughout our community, even handing off ideas when it makes more sense for others to take the lead. I connect with other department heads multiple times a day to discuss new and ongoing initiatives and to make sure programs are set-up for success.

Carry through

The last of what I call “The 3 Cs” is carry through, seeing the idea through to completion. Once the program or initiative does take place, however, our job is not done. We constantly evaluate how things went. Did we receive the audience or participation for which we had hoped? If not, did we promote the program enough? What adjustments need to be made as time goes on?

Carrying through to completion involves the continuing themes of communication and collaboration. With ongoing activities, clubs or charitable endeavors, our job is never really done.

As for Jane’s idea, we are moving ahead with turning her concept into a regularly scheduled event. Jane had shared with me that she and some of her neighbors have noticed that they did not recognize many of the new residents who have moved in since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Always concerned about the resident experience for those coming into the St. John’s Meadows community, Jane also misses getting to know more of her new neighbors. She suggested a mix-and-match luncheon where residents are linked up randomly with other participants and given discussion prompts, thus learning more about each other and forging new connections.

As of today, we have a date on the calendar to see how this luncheon — using much of the criteria Jane initially described — goes off as planned. We even held a similar, smaller-scale activity earlier this month to work through some of the logistics and make sure a larger-scale program runs smoothly. By following our process, we ensure that we make the most of these great ideas we get from residents.

If you also believe that your residents are the greatest resource your senior living community has to offer, then make sure you do not let these pearls of wisdom go to waste. Put in the time and effort it takes to fully see their ideas for engagement and enrichment through to completion for your community’s social recreation program.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

Have a column idea? See our submission guidelines here.