Most senior living life plan community CEOs will tell you they do an outstanding job of listening to the voice of residents at their campuses. Resident forums, resident councils, resident surveys — these common practices are heavily used to try to gather information on what is important to residents. And yet many residents still will reveal they don’t believe that they have a sufficient amount of input in decisions that affect their everyday lives.

The disconnect is a subtle one, I believe. Primary research conducted by Holleran concludes that “voice” is one of four critical dimensions of resident engagement.

What I hear a lot from residents is that they don’t always feel heard. Transparency is an area where many campus administrators struggle.

This fact has been substantiated by a recent study by Mather Lifeways entitled “Resident Expectations Regarding Transparency and Decision Making.” The report showed that 92% of campus administrators believe residents are very interested or somewhat interested in transparency and that this interest has grown over the past three years. The vast majority of these administrators, however, also believed that transparency leads to requests for more information that cannot be satisfied, and nearly half reported that greater transparency gives a sense of more control to residents and leads to more questions and more meetings.

When residents believe they are being pacified by campus administrators, we see it reflected in voice scores.

Voice scores in the Holleran resident engagement national benchmark consistently are lower than the other three engagement markers of connection, well-being and fulfillment. I believe the voice score is lower for several reasons:

  • First, it involves communication and feedback, and that’s a skill that is difficult for employees and administrators. They think they are hearing and responding, but that is not necessarily how the residents experience it.
  • Second, residents don’t rate the effectiveness of their resident associations/councils very high. The resident leaders try hard, but in general, the governance of these councils is not seen as being strong.
  • And third, administrators need to be more transparent in their decision-making and be open to hearing the resident voice on day-to-day living issues.

As an example, residents don’t always embrace the newer cuisines being offered in their dining experiences. Choice in dining options is directly related to having a voice. Instead of having the dining department dictate what is offered to residents, solicit direct feedback from the residents.

Everyone’s taste is different, so it is a challenge, but I recently was on one campus where residents uniformly stated they dislike fancy sauces and unfamiliar, experimental dishes. This is a case where the campus has decided that the dining director’s preference for creativity trumps what the residents really want.

Being responsive can be simple

Another area where room for improvement exists around giving residents a voice is a simple communication approach: Letting residents know whom to call to take care of their needs, especially over the weekends and during evening hours.

Administrators are baffled by this one, but I’ve heard residents say it time and again: Give us something we can put on our refrigerators so we have numbers and contact names at our fingertips for a variety of issues that crop up when the life plan community has a reduced staff level. During the week, they know who to reach out to, but over the weekend and at night, it’s less clear to them.

We know Responsiveness to inquiries / problems / complaints and Responsiveness of administration are key drivers of resident voice. The strong relationship between these factors reinforces the necessity of clear and simple communication.

And finally, adopt an attitude of including resident input and opinion in smaller decisions such as common area decor and transportation.

Administrators are much, much less paternalistic than in the past. Newer residents in particular, however, want a say in just about every dimension of campus life.

We used to call these residents “rouge,” which is insulting. The senior living community is their home, and they deserve a say.

Take the time to really listen and involve them in the day-to-day stuff. They have wonderful ideas to contribute. Yes, it takes time, but it is worth the effort.

If it affects them, include them.