Corporate Fitness and Active Aging

Senior Living Activities: Changing the Name or Changing the Notion

I read a blog recently on the Eden Alternative website about the power of language, in which the author quoted Alan A. Watts: “the menu is not the meal.” She was outlining her thoughts about words like “elder,” and “care partner,” and “home”—an important discussion! But the blog also got me thinking (as a good blog should) about lifestyle programming in communities. 

What If the Activities Director Was Called Something Else?

In the last five years, the senior living industry has started to make a title shift away from Activities Director and toward alternatives like Lifestyle Director, Life Enrichment Director, and Program and Events Director. Yet, this subtle shift in position naming, though necessary, is insufficient to make a true paradigm shift in how we support the elders who choose to reside in a senior living community. Changing the name is not the same as changing the notion.

I think the senior living industry as a whole is feeling a nudge (maybe it’s a push) toward doing better for our clientele. Consider the CCRC NameStorm from LeadingAge. The goal was to build a new potential name for Continuing Care Retirement Communities that would resonate with current and future buyers for this kind of product.

The idea about changing your activities department to your life enrichment department is the same: build something that resonates with your market. Still, as the Alan A. Watts quote hits home perfectly, simply changing the name is not enough. You can’t just create new name badges, update the job title on the position descriptions, order new business cards, and call it done. It’s not enough to simply change the name; we have to also (or at least) change the notion, the idea, of what activities can become in senior living. 

In fact, I would posit that you could actually keep the “activities department” if the staff are genuinely focused on building a better lifestyle for each resident. If they understand the personal passions, interests, desires, limitations, and fears of the members and provided “activities” that truly engaged those desires, the name “activities department” works just fine. 

But if your life enrichment department is still focused on filling the calendar to simply entertain residents, they are functioning the same way they were when you called them “Activities.” When they’re taking orders from a vocal minority of residents to drive largely homogeneous activities each month, they’re doing what they’ve always done, regardless of the name change.

Three Ways to Turn Activities into Life Enrichment

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So how do we start to make that shift, away from the same old filling-the-calendar senior living activities to facilitating life-enriching opportunities that allow the residents to live the lives they want to live? Here are three ways to start looking beneath the surface of your calendar to cultivate meaningful experiences for your participants.

  1. Get to know your customer. How well do you really know the members of your community? Sure, you know names, and there are “regulars” you know better than most. But how well do you know where they came from and what makes them tick? Can you get information from the sales staff discovery process to start building a profile on each member? What questions do you need answered about each resident that could be folded into the discovery process so that newly moved-in members don’t feel like they’re being poked and prodded to provide you with answers? How can you use the intel you get to start building experiences for each resident?
  2. Get creative with your budget. Budgets are what they are, and changing the name of your department isn’t going to suddenly give you unlimited funds. Yet, if you’re listening to your residents, and understanding how they want to live your in community, you may find that helping them accomplish just that does not require additional FTEs or operating funds. Sometimes pairing folks with common interests can allow an organic opportunity to form without costing the community a thing. For example, suppose, through discovery, you learn that you have four residents who love to play chess and who are passionate about teaching others to play. Once you connect those four members and help them determine times to establish a “club,” or ways to connect with a local after-school program to teach the game they love, you’re on your way to fulfilling a social, intellectual, and vocational pursuit for your members. 
  3. Get familiar with the numbers. If you’re in the business of filling calendars, there’s no reason to gather data. You can see from the calendar that it’s full. But if you are focused on building purposeful programming that allows participants to live more full lives, I suggest you start to get a handle on whether your efforts are making an impact. For example, many of your residents may still be working. How does your 10am group fitness class resonate for them? Does it fit their schedules? I’ve heard a lot of directors say that no one will do activities (except the theatre or related events) after 4pm, so they don’t program anything after 4pm. Do you know that because of what happened historically, or do you know that because you know your members and you know the data?

I’ll be speaking at the 2015 LeadingAge Annual Meeting on this very idea of data from activities programming. If you’re reaching for a way to do better for the members you serve, consider putting my session on your schedule.

Topics: CCRC senior wellness programs data collection senior living communities program planning activities enrichment