By: Sara Kyle, Ph.D & Kelly A. Stranburg M.Ed., CEP, CSCS, CDP

Resident Engagement Experts & Principals at LE3 Solutions.

Who has the keys?

The world of senior living is grappling with the concept of promoting and relying on resident led programming as one way to circumvent the everchanging and unique dynamics of required and recommended physical and social distancing. But how do we really go about defining and instilling trust for adoption of a variety of resident led opportunities? In recent months, the focus has become more collaborative between staff and residents rather than the authoritarian approach of a calendar of scheduled programs primarily selected and delivered by programming and activities staff.

Historically, the challenge with activities is that they were fundamentally created to be group activities and now, today, the “group” has become a concerning and challenging approach. We are seeing how the varying ways we enjoy connecting are being over complicated by the layers of pandemic restrictions. But perhaps these restrictions are opening our eyes to new opportunities and ways to approach how best to provide and support engagement for residents.

We need some fuel

They say innovation is most provocative when there seems to be the greatest obstacles to overcome. You see when the problem, or opportunity in this case, is most significant, that is when it requires the greatest deviance from the norm. We believe the current state of the engagement world in the space we coin as activities is quickly pivoting. Suddenly the term “activities” sounds like an elementary explanation to what can and should be more openly discussed as engagement, lifestyle and an overall experience.

Why now in this predicament are we willing to relinquish the power and authoritative approach to curated and “one size fits all” activities? We believe we have discovered when people have the freedom to speak their mind behind closed apartment doors and weigh in on content, they are more passionate, constructive, and opinionated. There is a greater level of clarity in expectations and individual desires now out in the open than we have ever previously been able to acquire. We are attaining this feedback through a variety of mechanisms; distanced conversations, web-based surveys, virtual meetings (yes, we said virtual!), and more!

Who is entering the directions into the GPS?

Why are we taking a step back now and believing that residents can drive their own bus (figuratively of course since we are fully aware of the liability issues regarding this operational service)? Why now do we know and accept they can plan, schedule, and facilitate their own programs and offerings? Simply put, activities and engagement staff roles were required to address other critical needs and demands; temperature taking, meal delivery, scheduling and facilitating of family and friend visits (both virtual and distanced), educational support and administering of virtual offerings, and more! This shift created for the first time the need for residents to step up and put their own skills, desires, and talents into high gear. Our collective communities needed them! More than ever, we called out in a covert admission of desperation and thankfully out of kindness, wisdom, and dare we say, boredom, residents in senior living settings answered with resolve and even excitement!

This control and influence on “must-haves”, wants and expectations should not be a new thing, but sadly it is. What this tells us is that there has been an untapped resource we have overlooked for quite some time. In addition, there are the sizable challenges in this role that assumes the responsibility of coordinating, motivating, and keeping large groups of individual personalities interested in commonplace offerings. We have such an opportunity upon us to revolutionize this thing we know as “activities” and truly create a path forward of autonomy, pursuit of personal passions, and what some might even call “healthy solitude”.

Check that rearview mirror

For too long we have viewed the resident who prefers being alone in their room or apartment as high risk for isolation and the catastrophic developments that often accompany self-isolation. But therein is the key word…SELF-isolation. When someone has been highly social, attends many programs and services, connects well with others, and then suddenly stops than by all means we should take notice.

But what about the “loner” upon move-in and beyond? Those individuals who prefer solitude with their writing, reading, going for walks, swimming laps, Facetiming family, etc. Is that an individual we need to be flagging and creating an intervention for? We say no. And the pandemic has highlighted just how resilient many aging adults truly are. Recently a resident shared with us that she is enjoying her time of not having the community schedule out every minute of her day with programs. She always felt obligated to attend as much as possible out of respect and enjoyment but what paid the price? Her pursuit of her own creative passions; cooking, sewing, and writing. The pandemic has allowed her a rebirth of what she enjoys most!

Time to change direction

Where facilitation and engagement come into play in this healthy solitude is to ensure there are opportunities and connections to share these talents beyond apartment or community walls. How do we encourage intergenerational programming that is not just face to face? How do we take projects and talents and create stories, highlight the positives of aging, capture experiences and learnings that benefit larger groups of people? This new approach is more about viewing engagement as a strategy of developing relationships, establishing community, and becoming the vessel that finds creative ways to tell the story of how residents spend their time. There is so much to acknowledge than bingo. (And trust us we know Bingo is beloved!)

All this to say why not let the resident drive the bus! Have we considered the idea of NOT returning to back to back programs all day long or in most cases 9am – 4pm once restrictions are no longer required? What do our residents truly want? Are operators willing to listen and shift how they operate? Have we considered the value in activities staff working 11am – 7pm? Part-time staff on evenings and weekends? Do we even need part-time staff if residents are willing and able to support engagement in a variety of ways? Is our responsibility to schedule everything out or provide the tools and resources to ensure our residents can pursue whatever they like on their schedules?

Let’s GO! The light is green!

What steps will you take to allow your residents to drive the bus? How will you engage them differently to learn what they truly want for programs, activities, and services? How will you adopt technology solutions and/or hardware? Will you consider tools like Eversound headsets to support physically distanced programs and family visits because residents are asking to be able to connect effectively? We encourage you to step back and really dig into how you offer programs and activities and identify gaps and opportunities. Share with leadership. What do you have to lose? Residents and families will thank you for your willingness to “toss them the keys”.

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