Scott Eckstein headshot
Scott Eckstein
Scott Eckstein headshot
Scott Eckstein

My dad went out as he came in, through the front door … even though the departure I’m talking about was for the last time.

That exit was through the front door because it was one of the few things I insisted on when I was running senior living communities. When someone passed away, they left through the same front door they came in through. It was a matter of dignity and respect for me and, I felt, for the family.

My wife recalled my front-door policy and asked that the assisted living community where my dad was a resident respect this request when I was still a bit indisposed after hearing the news of my dad’s passing. This little thing meant a lot to me, and I was glad my wife brought it up. It also got me thinking about the other nuggets of wisdom we have but are not necessarily transferring to the next generation of leaders.

I have been in the senior living business for more than 30 years, and in the past year, the current challenges of senior living became all too apparent … and personal. My sister and I had to move my dad into a senior living community from his home because the home care option was ridiculously expensive, and we also wanted him to be closer to one of us.

My dad ultimately lived in four different senior living communities. In one community, the service was horrendous. The second residence almost killed him, literally, due to an egregious medication error, and the third place could not properly administer the agreed-to individualized service plan or the additional services they promised they would manage.

My takeaway from those experiences? The issue is not necessarily the companies or the programs they have in place. Those were good, reputable companies. The issue, in my opinion, is that we have a phenomenal gap in the transfer of knowledge. I can attribute the failings we experienced at each of these communities to poor management, inexperienced staff or deficiencies in training. 

Whether this fact is due to COVID-19-related staffing issues that the entire industry has experienced, poor retention efforts, substandard hiring practices or just plain bad luck, I am not going to get into those specifics here. I just know that we need to do better. Period.

We need to do better in hiring, training and retaining experienced and qualified management and staff members. Company culture needs to be front and center, and palpable. We need to do a much better job in transferring the knowledge from each generation of workers to the next.

I constantly think of the amazing senior living industry bosses, mentors and colleagues I have had through the years. Where are the mentors in today’s day and age? I know there are not enough of them.

Between my industry work and my academic work, I feel obliged to share anything relevant I have learned in my years in the industry with the next generation of management and staff. All of us in positions of management need to act in a similar manner. Onboarding needs to be taken seriously, and off-boarding needs to be considered just as important, because it provides employees with the opportunity to tell us what we are doing right and what we are not doing right. 

We need to focus on ongoing training, career and professional development, and credentialing, to help staff members further commit to excellence in their roles and their paths for growth and promotion.

But back to my dad. We ended up moving my dad into a fourth community. Although things were not perfect (no place is), the staff did a really good job and were very responsive and attentive to my dad’s needs when issues did arise.

When I was running senior living communities, I always said to new residents and their families: “It is not perfect outside this building, so don’t expect perfection in it. But judge us on how we respond when issues do arise.”

I won’t mention the communities where we had really bad experiences, but I will mention the one where we did have a really good experience. My dad himself even said, “They are doing a pretty darn good job with me,” which was a lot coming from him, since he was not thrilled with the idea of moving into assisted living in the first place.

I want to thank Alta Senior Living and the team at Tequesta Terrace in Tequesta, FL, with particular thanks to Executive Director Christine Cheeseman and Vice President of Operations Sean O’Malley. It is because of their leadership that their staff took great care of, and actually cared for, my dad, respected his needs and delivered on our wishes for him.

We, as an industry, need to make a priority of the transfer of knowledge. My adult caregiver experience with my father reaffirmed the need for the work I am doing at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration and our Masters of Management in Hospitality senior living concentration, as well as the work of many other organizations, such as the Vision Centre, the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, Argentum, the American Seniors Housing Association and a host of other universities involved in educating the next generation of senior living industry management.

The demographics are not taking time off, COVID or no COVID, recession or no recession, staffing crisis or no staffing crisis. If we don’t do better in educating and training the next generation of management and staff, then the positive outcomes we promise our residents have less of a chance of success for those older adults coming in through the front door in the future.

Scott L. Eckstein is the director/adjunct professor of the senior living concentration for the Master of Management in Hospitality degree program at Boston University, managing director of Active Living International and a strategic adviser for CiminoCare.

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.

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