Lessons Learned from Seniors on September 11

“I’m surprised you aren’t watching television right now,” the maintenance technician said as he walked into my office.

“Why would I be watching television?” I replied.

“Because a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I ran to the TV lounge at the large assisted living facility I had been with as Administrator for the last four months.  When I turned on the television, there was a picture of a plane stuck in the side of a high rise.  As I watched in horror, the second plane hit another building.  We now know the rest of how that story unfolded that day.

The tragedy was incomprehensible to me.  I stood in stunned silence watching events unfurl on TV.  After a few minutes, I began to wonder what my residents’ response to these events would be.  I was anxious about how I would handle their terror and what I would be able to do to comfort them.  I expected them to coming pouring out of their apartments at any moment.  I waited.  And I waited.  And I waited.  But, no residents came out.  No one came to my office and needed comfort.

At lunch time, residents began to head to the dining room.  They were talking about what had happened, but they didn’t really seem that shaken up.  Didn’t they understand that the world as we knew it had just changed forever?

Then it hit me:  this was truly the first disaster of this magnitude for my generation, but their generation had seen this sort of tragedy many times.  They had lived through wars, assassinations, and the depression.  Their world did not really change that day, at least not in the way mine did.

Over the next few days, weeks, and months, I would begin to assimilate the catastrophe into my experience of life.  What happened was horrifying.  But, my residents helped me realize, our generation didn’t invent being witness to tragedy.  Tragedy has been around for much longer than my short time on this earth.

My other lesson from this experience was a better understanding of the patriotism that seniors have.  We saw an outpouring of patriotism in our society after the tragedy of September 11.  It must have been similar to the patriotism that our seniors felt as young people when world wars were won or our country pulled together after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I had always considered myself patriotic, having grown up as the daughter of a Korean War Veteran, but I experienced an even bigger sense of pride in my country as I watched men and women respond to the September 11 events.

I never cease to be amazed at what I learn from my senior adult residents.  I am glad they were there for me, even though they didn’t know it, when September 11 occurred.  Their response humbled me into a better understanding of what a small fish I am in the big pond of the history of the world.

What We Owe Our Young People

As an employer, I have always felt that we have a special obligation to the young people we employ.  I have frequently made this a topic of conversation with my management teams.  I’m not talking about state laws that govern how many hours a week young people can work or OSHA regulations about what equipment they can use.  I am talking about what we owe them in regard to their future careers.

Have you ever considered what a big responsibility it is to be someone’s first employer?  You have the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of a young person’s career.  Are you up to the task?

First of all, we need to teach them that they must expect to work in a safe environment-whether they are working for us or for someone else-both physically and emotionally.  There are laws, such as OSHA, that we must follow as employers, such as equipment that underage workers cannot use, and there are state laws that govern what hours underage workers can work.  We owe it to our young people to explain to them why these laws exist.  We also need to train them in the use of safety equipment (they’ve never done this before, folks) and why we require them to use the safety equipment.  We need to give them positive reinforcement when they follow these rules and coach them when they don’t.

More than physical safety is the emotional safety.   I cannot count the number of times I have worked with managers who allow staff or residents to verbally and/or sexually harass our young people.  It may be uncomfortable to discuss, but we have to intervene on their behalf.  They don’t know that this kind of treatment is not part of their job.  They are scared.  And if we teach them that this behavior is ok, by not intervening for them, they will take it on to their next job.  Eventually they may become the harasser instead of the victim.  We need to be responsible for stopping that cycle before it starts.

There is lots of discussion in the HR literature about working with Generation X, Y and etc.  I say this is managers making excuses for taking the easy way.  If we don’t teach Generation X, Y or whatever that there are rules at work—uniforms, being on time, not using vulgar language—who will?  This doesn’t mean you can’t relate to them on their own level regarding some subjects, but it means someone has to teach them the reality of working.  I have never run into problems with a young person in my job because I made him or her follow the rules.

I remember when my son got his nose pierced.  As a mother, I was a bit mortified, but it is his body and he wasn’t hurting anyone.  One day, he fell and we thought he broke his collar bone.  I took him to the emergency room.  The doctor was a 40-something woman.  As she was examining my son, she asked him how much it hurt.  He said he didn’t know.  Then she said the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard:  “Does it hurt more than it did when you got your nose pierced?”    At that moment, I could have kissed her!  You see most adults, especially professionals, never knew what to say to my son about his nose ring.  But, this doctor brought it right into the conversation, showing she related to my son, but continuing with her professional boundaries.

My  point is this:  You can talk to Johnny about his ears being gauged to an inch or about his new tattoo, but that doesn’t mean he gets to wear his earrings at work or show his tats.  There are still rules that must be followed and you, fellow manager, have the task of making sure we educate these young people that we and every future employer are going to expect them to follow those rules.

The Saga of Toilet Paper

Because I live in retirement communities as a Pro Tem Executive Director, I experience first hand what our residents experience.  This gives me a unique perspective on all the services we provide, from dining to housekeeping.  These experiences have led me to a conclusion:  we have a toilet paper issue.

Every other week, the housekeepers clean my apartment.  They are wonderful, dedicated, and dynamic women (there are few men).  Their hearts are in their work.  They love our residents and they love their jobs.  However, consistently I have experienced in most of my communities that I can’t get them to leave me more than one roll of toilet paper to last for a two-week period of time.

If this had happened in only one community, I wouldn’t have noticed, but about the fourth or fifth community, I started to notice this pattern.  And that got me to thinking.  How is it that we have caring, dedicated individuals who would leave out this detail?  Then I realized:  we have trained some of the good common sense right out of them.

No matter the industry, we spend a lot of time and money training our staff.  For housekeepers, we concentrate not only on the process they use to clean, but how much product they use to complete the task.  If they are using more cleaning or paper products than their peers, the department manager will be having a discussion with them.  But, if you asked these ladies if it is realistic that one roll of toilet paper should last someone for two weeks, they would answer emphatically:  “No.”

What are we doing, as managers, when we focus so much on efficiency and cost-effectiveness?  We risk making our employees scared to do the right thing when it comes to serving our customers.  And not having enough toilet paper is just the tip of that iceberg.

Why Your Dining Service Problems May Not Be Dining Service Problems


As Executive Directors and Administrators of Senior Care facilities, we know how important dining service is to resident satisfaction.  Dining is more than eating; it is also an important time for socialization with friends.

Resident satisfaction with dining services can make or break a community.  If residents do not perceive their dining experience to be a satisfactory one over all, they will tell everyone they know, call the state licensing agency, and generally spread the word around the community, pulling as many other residents as possible into their negative mindset about dining.

After serving residents in more than 20 communities over the last 15 years, I have learned that complaints about dining frequently aren’t really about dining.  If I have complaints about dining, the first thing I study is the activity program.

If residents have an activity program that meets their needs in a holistic manner, their general satisfaction will be higher.  If they have positive things to focus on, they are less likely to be drawn into a negative mindset about many things, including dining.

A holistic activity program addresses all areas of the human experience:  spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical, intellectual, and vocational.  Think about the last time your own life was out of balance in your holistic wellness; what was your mindset?  Was your attitude as positive as it could be?

Next time you are having dining complaints, rather than take a look in the kitchen, take a long look at your activity program.  Take a hard look at how many times you offer bingo versus activities that meet residents’ other needs.  You may find your dining service issues can be resolved where you least expected it.

Want to Take Your Senior Housing Product to the Next Level?

As Executive Directors and Administrators, we work diligently to provide our customers with the best services and products.  We analyze what our competitors are doing and what the latest trends are in the industry.  But, if you really want to take your independent living, assisted living, or skilled nursing program to the next level, there is one thing you need to do:  move in.

Over the last two years, it has been my privilege to share the home of residents in more than ten independent and assisted living communities.  That experience has helped me understand the reality of what it is like to be a resident–dependent on staff for food, housekeeping, maintenance, safety, and security.  What I have learned most of all is how inconsistent we are in our industry in providing services to our customers.

I challenge you to move in to your community for one week.  Tell your staff that you have a respite moving in and to get a room or apartment set up.  Then arrive with your suitcase containing your clothes and personal care items, just like a real respite resident would do.

As you live in your respite apartment, ask yourself if you really have everything that makes you feel comfortable.  I encourage you to keep a diary and record your experience.  Common missing items in my experience include an iron and ironing board, alarm clock, paper or kitchen towels, and enough toilet paper to last through the week.

Next, use all your senses to truly experience your community.  Yes, we all are aware of “managing by walking around,” but it is different to truly experience the sound of the med cart rolling out of the elevator at 5 am when you are asleep!

Make sure you order room trays for your meals, instead of eating in the dining room.  Not only do you want to experience the temperature of the food when it arrives, but you also want to see the delivery process and accuracy of the order.  I have frequently received a delicious meal without condiments or utensils!

You will also want to use your laundry rooms, not only to experience the quality of the facilities, but also the noise and odor level, from a resident’s perspective.  And don’t forget to stroll the grounds and sit outside at night to help you assess lighting and noise levels from the resident’s perspective.

Once your week is over, review your diary.  Make a list of those things that were done well and those things that need some improvement, and then make sure you share both with your staff.  You might even want to offer your staff the chance to have the experience of living in the community, too.

Good luck with your adventure.  I am confident you will find one or two things that will help you take your community to the next level!