I have spent the past 50 years building a career in hospitality services. I have worked in restaurants, hotels and, most recently, as St. John’s vice president for senior housing.

St. John’s independent living and assisted living communities comprise 440 apartments, town homes, cottages and bungalows. This responsibility keeps me active and very personally involved with a focus on satisfying the expectations of more than 500 residents. Over the years and through my various hospitality roles, I have learned that relationships are key, and that is no different in the business of senior housing — building supportive, meaningful and open resident relationships are the bottom line.

Overall, I can confidently say that my career has been gratifying, challenging and meaningful. Gratifying, because there are daily opportunities to serve people and exceed expectations. The work, at times, is challenging, with residents’ requests being as unique as the residents who live in our communities. Having the opportunity to make a difference in individual lives every day, however, truly is meaningful. For certain, relationships do matter — and building them, one resident at a time, is the job.

My 30 years in the retirement housing field has taught me that senior living is not exclusively about beautiful communities, amenities, bricks and mortar, or the financial bottom line. Yes, these all are important factors in a community’s success; however, at the end of the day, it is about relationships — plain and simple. When resident relationships are effectively the key focus of the community, both financial success and a healthy reputation for the community will follow. Conversely, if a profitable bottom line is the sole focus, overshadowing the importance of residents, then a successful community will be elusive.

I have learned over the years that there is “nothing new under the sun.” To lead a successful community, one must simply follow the golden rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Hundreds of bumper-sticker sayings speak to this behavior. Sadly, I have experienced that the actual execution of this practice is lacking in our industry today.

Author Steven Covey writes about the emotional bank account and the importance of depositing “meaningful interactions” into people’s accounts and avoiding withdrawals at all costs. For a resident to know that he or she truly matters, it is vital to invest into the well-being of that resident. There is nothing more detrimental to the spirit of a community than to ignore a resident. One simple example, by sincerely addressing each resident by name every time you encounter him or her communicates that you care enough to know that person by name and that he or she matters to you.

Other ways I employ this philosophy are through an “open door” policy and by exemplifying approachability. I believe these are critical to a community’s success.

Weekly, I conduct “Coffee with Paul” open forums in our communities. I have found that meeting weekly allows for a timely, two-way flow of information that cannot be captured by a survey or gathered at a once-annually all resident meeting. Just imagine the value of having 52 opportunities a year to address problems, curtail the spread of community rumors, collect suggestions and discuss other current “grapevine topics” versus holding a once-annual address.

These informal forums also allow for the opportunity to share community updates, points of interest and personal stories, as well as introduce new residents and staff members. To ensure the success of these meetings, I have found it to be essential to document action items and provide immediate follow up. I have learned there is nothing more detrimental to a person’s credibility than to promise follow up and then fail to do so. The residents will not forget what you promise, and they will remember when you deliver on promises made.

In terms of responding to resident requests, there are only three appropriate responses:

  1. That is not a problem. I will take care of it.
  2. I don’t know the answer, but I will find out who does and get right back to you.
  3. Is there anything else I can do for you? I have the time.

A few years ago, I was called to a resident’s apartment to resolve an issue, and before I left, I asked whether there was anything else I could do for the person. For the next three hours, I made her bed, changed light bulbs and cleaned the kitchen. Was this time well spent? Most certainly it was. Through this “meaningful interaction,” this resident felt as if she were the most important person in the community — because, in that moment, she was.

Can you imagine calling your local cable company with a concern and having a return response of, “Not a problem. I will take care of it” and additionally, having the company thoroughly and timely follow up on your concern? How refreshing would that be?

Throughout my career, I have heard leaders and managers boast this common phrase: “I’m not here for a popularity contest.” I will argue that, well, yes you are. This behavior, however, must be genuine and not self-glorifying. A little humility goes a long way to temper this philosophy. The open door policy, approachability and availability I mentioned previously are important components to achieving “popularity.” In other words, residents need to feel comfortable sharing their concerns with the “popular” leader versus fearing the manger in the “ivory tower.”

At this stage of their lives, residents and their families place their trust and well-being in our hands. This responsibility is a privilege and an honor. Where else do you have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, daily? Author Maya Angelo sums this up best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In senior living, our purpose is to strengthen the ever-evolving relationships we have, as “servant leaders,” with our residents, so that they all clearly know that they are important and matter — because they do.

Paul Bartlett is the vice president of senior living at St. John’s, a full-service care provider with options from independent living to skilled nursing and hospice in Rochester, NY. Paul will be retiring in September 2021 after more than 50 years in the hospitality business. He has spent the later three decades of those 50 years within the senior housing/retirement industry. Paul can be reached at [email protected].