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New Paths for Senior Living: Improving Satisfaction,One Resident at a Time

Posted by Jo-Anne Kempe | Tuesday, August 17, 2010

One of the great joys of my job is the time I spend in “hands-on” work with executives, managers and staff in senior living communities across the U.S. and Canada. They tell me how they want to improve their operations and describe the service they’d love to be able to offer their residents. I share what I’ve learned from others seeking similar results. We explore how they can deliver a better resident experience and contain costs at the same time. We set up the Worx software to help them do this with maximum efficiency, and work together through the transition to different ways of doing things that make everyone’s lives easier.

As the team that created the PM Worx maintenance management software prepares for the launch later this year of TheWorx Hub – our new, state-of-the-art suite of integrated operations management applications designed just for senior living communities – I’ve been reflecting on how these conversations have changed over the past decade. Each community has a unique history and is on its own journey, but I see some general trends. Here’s one path I’ve found many communities pursuing more vigorously these days: More than ever they are striving to be true “communities” – places where people feel “at home” and surrounded by just the right supports to make them feel comfortable and fulfilled. I almost never hear the word “facility” anymore. It has come to suggest places with more of an institutional feel, where residents receive the care that someone else has decided they need, on someone else’s terms.

The senior living staff I work with care very much about understanding and responding to the unique personality and preferences of each resident. Within the general industry-defined level of care a community officially offers, most go out of their way whenever they can to provide special services that residents request. Maintenance staff hang pictures and rearrange furniture. Housekeepers help with personal ironing or clean a cherished piece of silver. Activities directors or front desk staff arrange transportation to shopping or appointments.

When this happens, residents feel cared-for and satisfied. Employees feel valued and proud of their work. But taken too far it can create a serious dilemma for senior living executives, who at the end of the day run a business and must make the books balance, even in a not-for-profit community. They watch costs rise or timeliness suffer as more and more staff time is devoted to tasks that aren’t in their official work plan. They fear that some employees are trying to do too much and will burn out from all the conflicting demands. They have a general sense that this is driven by an admirable desire to provide better service, but they’re not sure it’s appropriate or possible to increase the fees paid by all residents to cover the costs – or to seek more money from external donors and supporters. And they know they don’t have enough data on what is actually happening to make an informed decision.

I’ve worked with communities who are treating this dilemma as an opportunity to simultaneously improve resident and staff satisfaction, contain costs, differentiate themselves in the market, and attract new residents. The answer lies in what the business world would call mass customization – the idea that today’s technology makes it possible to cost-effectively tailor products and services to individual preferences, not just for those few lucky enough to be very wealthy, but for a general middle-class population.

As growing numbers of boomers consider senior living options, many bring with them both very high expectations of what they want their ideal community to provide and a willingness to pay a reasonable amount for these desires to be met. They have strong opinions as to what balance of independence and support is right for them, and they know this balance will change over time. Clean and well maintained living spaces and grounds are table stakes, as is excellence in delivering a core level of support. A community that also offers a menu of “extra” services from which they can customize their personal experience has a competitive edge.

In the past, tracking and billing for such services was a complicated undertaking that looked like it would eat up more costs in administrative time than it delivered in resident satisfaction. Today’s technology makes it easy to set an appropriate price for valued services, record resident preferences and track special service use, and generate billings without manual paperwork. Managers can also monitor resident feedback on each service interaction and use this to improve both offering and delivery.

My view is that there’s a great opportunity for more communities to learn to improve satisfaction, one resident at a time, by offering this kind of customized experience. This is one path I expect communities will continue to pursue in the future. I’ll be exploring others in future installments of this “new path” series. In the meantime, I’d be interested in your experience and any comments on this entry. Also any other new paths you’re exploring and would like to hear more about. Please email