As I hung up the phone with my 82-year-old mother, I couldn’t help thinking about her words: “Well, at least she will be safe now.” My mother was referring to an extended relative in our family who was in the hospital and was to be transitioning to an assisted living community upon her hospital discharge.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the words “keeping residents safe.” What exactly does keeping residents safe in assisted living communities mean, beyond the obvious human basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, etc.?

The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that although keeping residents safe in assisted living communities is a priority for almost anyone involved in the senior living industry, the meaning behind the words can vary considerably not only for assisted living community staff members, but for owners and operators, outside clinicians, home health companies, hospice companies, vendor partners, families of loved ones and residents themselves. Systemically, there is a focused effort to change the perception of aging and what “aging well” looks like for older adults living in senior living communities. How do we define the meaning of exactly what “keeping residents safe” means with so many parties involved?

Regarding the words referenced by my mother, I can share with confidence that she meant that our relative will have a good meal in her stomach, a clean bed, clean clothes and someone close by should she fall “again,” which, unfortunately, would equate to four falls in less than one month.

There are more than 30,000 senior living communities in the US currently, with approximately 810,000 older adults living in these communities. The National Center for Assisted Living reports that more than 478,500 people were directly working in assisted living communities as of January, and that count doesn’t include all of the additional personnel who provide a host of additional needs to residents and/or to communities. That’s not only a large number of people related to employment within the senior living industry; it’s a large number of people with thousands of different opinions regarding exactly what “keeping residents safe” means.

We can learn from healthcare

Many assisted living communities either have transitioned already or are transitioning to more of a healthcare model to accommodate members of our aging population, who are living with more chronic conditions than ever before. Although most people will agree that our current US healthcare system warrants significant improvement, some positive things can be learned from the healthcare industry that can be transferred over to the senior living industry. One of those things is the importance of interdepartmental connectivity along with outside connectivity as relates to taking care of older adults living in assisted living communities.

In healthcare, there is much interdepartmental connectivity to help keep peoples safe. For example, outpatient radiology imaging centers typically employ a community outreach person. This person’s role is to build relationships with area physicians in hopes that the external physician will refer patients to the imaging center when a patient needs magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography or some other type of imaging exam.

I think it’s fair to say that the salesperson role that I am describing for a radiology imaging practice has similarities to a senior living community salesperson. The senior living community salesperson spends time building area relationships with other senior living industry professionals. If the community salesperson has done his or her job well, then the community should be top of mind when an industry professional with whom they have built a relationship with has a client who is exploring assisted living community options.

Although there are several similarities to roles both in healthcare and in senior living, interdepartmental connectivity may be lagging as the senior living industry evolves. Certainly not for all communities, but for some. It is important to remember that human connectivity and communication are two very different things. Connectivity is a much deeper understanding of how one person, place or thing affects another person, place or thing.

As an example, in the radiology patient care cycle process, once a person is referred to a radiology practice, there are many internally connected departments, along with external connections, that must work well with one another to ensure that the patient is taken care of throughout the entire process.

The radiology imaging center scheduler must have a pleasant phone manner and be able to convey to the potential new incoming patient, available appointment times, insurance information, necessary prep prior to the exam, and possible exam risk factors. When the patient arrives at the imaging center for their scheduled exam, the front desk person must be personable, knowledgeable, and helpful to the patient while paperwork is completed.

Quite often, the next step in the cycle of taking care of the patient is that a radiology technologist will come to the exam waiting area to greet the patient, walk with the person to the exam room and share details of what to expect during the exam. The cycle doesn’t end there, as once the exam is completed, the radiologist physician becomes connected to the other internal imaging center departments and to the patient by virtue of the imaging read. The radiologist physician also becomes connected to the external referring physician by virtue of his or her final report and digital images being transferred back to the referring physician’s office via a web portal.

The cycle can break

In this example, there is a tremendous amount of connectivity. If there is one weak link in the process, the entire cycle becomes broken. What if, for example, the salesperson, the scheduler and the front desk person did a wonderful job getting the patient through the first part of the cycle, but the radiology technologist was not friendly or nice toward the patient during the walk to the exam room? Will that patient return to this same imaging center in the future?

What if the salesperson, the scheduler, the front desk person, the radiology technologist and the radiologist all did their jobs amazingly well, but the outside referring physician didn’t contact the patient in a timely manner to inform the patient of the test results? The entire cycle becomes broken because the connection is lost. On the positive flip side, when internal departments connect well with each other while also connecting well with outside “departments,” the cycle of patient care is more streamlined with people feeling cared about and “safe.”

Consider connections

So what can we learn from the healthcare industry that will help keep residents safe in the senior living industry? I think the entire senior living industry will fare better overall if everyone involved in the industry, regardless of their role, takes a pause to better understand how internal departments connect with one another within an assisted living community, as well as has a better understanding of how communities connect with outside third parties, too.

For example, what happens if a community salesperson shares with a prospective resident during a community tour that the community has a weekly bridge club and the potential new resident loves to play bridge, but the reality is that the bridge club has dismantled? Once that potential resident moves into the community, he or she now has an expectation that there is a bridge club. If, in fact, a bridge club no longer exists, then that resident will be disappointed and may approach the activities director with a complaint regarding the bridge club expectation. The activities director, having been left in the dark about what was shared during this resident’s community tour, now is left to handle a negative situation, and the connection is lost between the sales department, the new resident and the activities department. Will that resident feel “safe?” How will the activities director feel toward the salesperson?

It’s very challenging to keep residents safe if departments within communities are siloed. It also is important to understand how assisted living communities connect with outside parties, such as families of residents, healthcare providers, hospice companies and home care agencies, to name a few.

Outside ancillary product and service vendor partners who are well-connected within a community also play a very important role in contributing to favorable resident outcomes. Whether directly related to resident care, related to the physical building upkeep or related to a host of other pieces and parts that help a community function, vendor partners’ contributions matter, too. Understanding holistic connectivity is vital to helping older adults age well.

A vendor perspective

As an employee of a global manufacturer of high-quality incontinence products, and as an ancillary product and service partner to many senior living communities nationwide, we, too, have our unique viewpoints of what keeping residents safe means. First and foremost, our company always thinks about strategies that we can share with community staff to improve some level of continence for their residents because we know that improving continence helps to reduce overall risk of negative clinical and social outcomes, thus keeping residents safe.

For those residents who do need to wear a brief or a pull-up, we provide high-quality products that allow residents to sleep undisturbed through the night. If residents are sleeping at night, then they are not up, thus keeping them safer from a potential fall. Fewer resident falls connects to happier and healthier residents, which connects to less worry for families of loved ones. The connectivity ripples on and on between residents, families of residents, community staff members, etc.

We also think about “Mrs. Smith,” the resident challenged with functional incontinence only because her legs don’t work as well as they used to. What’s the connection with community staff members? Well, if there are not enough staff members on hand to assist “Mrs. Smith” when she needs to use the toilet, and provided that “Mrs. Smith” is wearing a fully breathable, super-absorbent incontinence product that has inner leaks and is comfortable to wear, she will be OK if a community caregiver cannot reach her in time to assist with her toileting needs. “Mrs. Smith” will remain safe, meaning that there shouldn’t be concern of skin breakdowns, because the community made a good decision to buy high-quality incontinence products for residents. The manufacturer of the product is connected to the community distributor, and the distributor is connected to the community’s staff. In this example, the manufacturer of the high-quality product is indirectly connected to the resident. To my earlier point, it all matters!

Regardless of a person’s title, role, rank or offering, walking in the shoes of others to understand the connectivity between everyone is vital to improving and enhancing the quality of life for the older adult population being served.

Although “keeping residents safe” takes on many meanings depending on who is being asked to define the phrase, it probably is the No. 1 thing that all of us attempt to achieve for the betterment of the older adults for whom we are providing care, directly or indirectly.

The most important lesson

If we can take away some positive golden nuggets learned from the evolution of our US healthcare system, the word “connectivity” may be the most important lesson learned. As community providers, department staff within communities, residents, families of residents, clinicians, home health companies, hospice companies, and product and services ancillary support partners, let’s strive to better connect with one another. A holistic mindset should trump a siloed mindset.

Providing high-quality care for older adults is not easy, and for many, it may feel like a giant, 30,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. When we better understand how our unique pieces connect — not only into the bigger puzzle, but individually piece by piece — is when I believe we will be closer to defining what “keeping residents safe” means.

Deanna Vigliotta is the national sales manager for Seni premium adult incontinence products and has a 30-year background in healthcare sales and sales management. She joined Seni in early 2019 to help expand the brand presence on the US market and to educate consumers, healthcare professionals and senior living communities about the importance of choosing high-quality, fully breathable products.

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

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