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It’s often been said that “If you’ve seen one senior living community, you’ve seen one senior living community.” The uniqueness of the industry is its hallmark, and that’s true of company culture as well.

Whether it’s a community outreach program that connects residents and staff with organizations and individuals in need, an employee recognition program that inspires staff to do more meaningful work, or an opportunity to improve resident well-being with art, senior living communities are approaching culture in a variety of ways. What we do and where we spend our time speaks to who we are.

Senior living companies know this well. The creativity and passion exemplified in the examples that follow is impressive. Many of these programs and initiatives are worth emulating—though some are more involved than others. What is clear is that creating and supporting the culture you want for your company is no accident. It must be supported every day and in many ways.

Resident Programs: Promoting Quality of Life and Engagement

“Creating a warm, safe, vibrant space where residents are celebrated, loved, served, and known” is the heart of Springwell Senior Living’s culture, says Phil Golden, principal and chief operating officer.

That sentiment is what led to the Artist-in-Residence program, which was launched in 2015, inspired by a similar program Golden saw featured on a morning television news program. While the news program featured an athlete who was enjoying temporary housing in a senior living community, Golden saw another opportunity. Already, Springwell frequently invited artists into the community for a wide range of performances. Why not create something more permanent?

Springwell artist spends time with residents.
Springwell’s artist-in-residence, Julian Xuereb, classical guitar graduate student at the Peabody Institute, spends time with residents and Phil Golden, Springwell’s principal and chief operating officer.

Residents were enthusiastic about the idea, as were Springwell staff members. “Our residents so love music,” says Golden, “and music has proven clinical benefits on mood and the ambiance of the community.”

Julian Xuereb, classical guitar graduate student at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, renewed his one-year contract with Springwell last June. “We were looking for someone with the right blend of talent and personality,” Golden says of Xuereb, who has exceeded every expectation. Golden recalls a moment when he visited a “beloved resident who was receiving hospice care.” Golden entered the room to see several nurses caring for the resident, along with Xuereb “sitting there playing guitar in this quiet room. It was a remarkable scene.”

“Julian is very much a part of our community,” Golden says, adding that Xuereb has helped other artists get placed in other communities. “Seeing him enjoy our residents as much as we do has been incredibly rewarding.”

Golden suggests others considering a similar program get buy-in from residents and staff first. Are they interested in visual arts? Performance art? A writer? An athlete? Look first to the performers and guests who already visit your communities. And be mindful of safety. Springwell conducts the same rigorous background check and review for artists as it does for its staff.

But artists aren’t the only long-term guests in senior living communities. Pathway Senior Living invites senior dogs to live in its Chicago-area communities. Dogs like Teddy, Daisy, and Nitra—just a few of Pathways’ four-legged residents in the See Spot Retire program—are hand-picked from shelters to ensure they are well-suited to living in a senior living community and then carefully trained.

“Like any other program, it takes a commitment from the whole community to be successful,” says Maria Oliva, Pathway’s chief people officer. “Everyone needs to agree to be patient, participate in the training, and give proper care and affection to the dog. Because we don’t always know much about the dog we get or in some cases aren’t told everything by the shelter, there may be some challenges. No two dogs are alike, so just as we use a person-centered approach to care for our residents, we must use a canine-centered approach to care for our dogs. Most families and residents love the idea of a house dog, especially if they were used to having pets.”

While the benefits to pet ownership are many, they are perhaps even more beneficial among seniors, including improved mood, increased activity, and comfort. Having a dog in the community encourages residents to interact and socialize with the community pet—and, as a result, other residents.

Dog Toby works with See Spot Retire Program
See Spot Retire dog Toby enjoys outside time with Pathway residents.

Pathway has seen a few unexpected benefits. For example, a new resident chose to move in because she had a similar breed of dog at some point in her life. Another resident, who didn’t often participate in community programs and only came out for meals, volunteered to care for the house dog, walking her several times each day and engaging with others in the community, Oliva says.

“See Spot Retire has helped to combat/prevent isolation and loneliness and has provided natural opportunities for socialization,” affirms Vicki Striegel, executive director of Victory Centre of Bartlett, a Pathway community. “Some residents who may not participate in other community life programs or who are very shy will come visit or play with Daisy. It’s a natural bridge to socialize with other residents, develop friendships, and then become more involved in the community.”

Communities considering a pet should look at cost and care logistics. “Because See Spot Retire is geared toward older dogs and dogs that have disabilities, they tend to have higher costs,” says Oliva. Vet bills, specialized diets, medications, and possibly a trainer or behaviorist, need to be budgeted as part of care. Keeping staff and residents engaged in caring can be challenging. “Feeding, walking, grooming, and picking up after the dog is a lot of work. We often find that one or two residents, and employees, step up to the plate and make it their purpose to help care for the dog,” says Oliva. Developing a schedule for care has been helpful, according to Striegel, who also notes the importance of talking about treats. “Residents love to give Daisy treats—a lot of treats—so we have to educate them on healthy treat options and frequency.”

Community Outreach Programs: Promoting a Culture of Service and Purpose

Engaging both residents and staff members to make a difference in the greater community has become a growing trend in senior living, especially as seniors with long histories of social activism and volunteerism move into senior living communities. Finding opportunities for residents, and for staff, to improve communities both at home and abroad, is a noble goal and one that translates into resident satisfaction and associate loyalty.

Holiday Retirement developed Seniors Serving Seniors & Society, an international award-winning volunteer program developed with the goal to provide residents with “opportunities to enrich the lives of others and enhance the purpose and passion in their own lives.”

We believe that individuals who volunteer experience increased satisfaction, pride, and a feeling of personal accomplishment,” says Jamison Gosselin, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Holiday. “The Seniors Serving Seniors & Society program identifies one nonprofit organization each month and Holiday’s home office provides tools, resources, and support for the communities who choose to participate,” Gosselin explains.

Companywide initiatives are chosen based on resident feedback gathered through surveys. For example, 2017 initiatives will include volunteer opportunities focused on mentoring, heart health, Meals on Wheels, hunger aid, active aging, Toys for Tots, and several more. “We also encourage communities to support local charities that are near and dear to their hearts,” says Gosselin.

One such effort was a water drive held by Holiday’s Wescourt community residents to support those affected by the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. While talking with residents during an exercise class, enrichment coordinator Melissa Bergant mentioned her concern for the seniors impacted by the tainted drinking water in Flint, recalls Pat Rowe, Wescourt general manager. “Melissa’s specific concern was for potential medication interactions with the lead in the water.” Residents shared her concerns and saw an opportunity to help, collecting money and cases of donated water.

“With the money collected, I was able to negotiate a deal from a local business to purchase even more water,” says Bergant. “Nine of our residents drove down to Flint alongside the U-Haul we rented to carry the 159 cases of water they had gathered. We split the donation between a Flint nursing home and the city’s senior center.”

Holiday Retirement Volunteers
Holiday Retirement’s Vineyard Place school supply drive in September 2016.

Overall, Holiday has seen countless benefits of the Seniors Serving Seniors & Society program—some of them unexpected. Gosselin points to resident Lois Horn as one example. A resident at Highland Estates in Cedar Park, Texas, Horn, who is in her 90s, took the initiative to teach “Knit and Stitch” classes to other residents in her community. “Moving into a senior living community can be an emotional process for seniors and their families. When Lois first arrived, she wasn’t in a hurry to get involved—she was a little more timid and reserved,” says Gosselin. “Now she’s really found her place in the community by teaching classes and using knitting to connect with fellow residents.”

But even more—now that Horn’s students are more proficient, the class has started knitting items for neighbors in need outside the community. So far, the knitting group has hand-knit hats for adult cancer patients and children at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, and knit purple hats to raise awareness for shaken baby syndrome. “They have truly impacted people’s lives,” says Gosselin. One resident’s passion is all that’s needed for a program like Knit and Stitch to thrive.

Holiday’s list of volunteering successes is long and varied and it’s worth noting the positive impact on residents’ health and well-being. This commitment to community engagement plays an essential role in supporting the company’s overall culture. “Upon entering a Holiday community, visitors feel a sense of warmth and welcoming. It is our compassion. Our connection. This connection between Holiday associates and residents is a bond that is difficult to put into words or images. This value we offer is hard to describe,” but ultimately the goal is “to make sure our residents open a new chapter when they join our communities and continue to live life,” says Gosselin.

MorningStar Senior Living team members would wholeheartedly agree. The company has also made “giving back” part of its overall company culture—both for the company as a whole and for individual team members and residents. MorningStar staff and residents invest their time and talents in charitable projects within their own cities and around the world. From Operation Christmas Child to the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, MorningStar staff and residents are participating in a number of activities that inspire and support others.

Among the more impactful initiatives has been an annual trip to the Casa Bernabe orphanage in a remote village in Nicaragua. On the most recent trip, several staff members spent a week at the orphanage, bringing nearly $53,000 in donations for building upgrades, therapeutic supplies, and more.

Morning Star volunteer working in Nicaragua.
MorningStar’s Drew Ostransky, director of investments, with a local laborer in Nicaragua.

“I have been speaking about MorningStar’s charity work in Nicaragua to MorningStar employees since I first joined the company in 2009,” says Brittany Fleshman, vice president of culture. “For me to be able to experience and physically help in person almost eight years later is surreal. I think the trip not only furthered the efforts in helping orphans in poverty, but bonded our home office team in a way that can never be broken. This trip allowed us to be vulnerable and human with each other; demolishing any walls that may have existed between one another entirely.”

“This experience with my colleagues, raw and real as it was, deepened my ability to communicate the refreshing distinctions of MorningStar—servant leadership, authenticity, God-honoring behavior, personal growth, and radiant spirits,” adds Lorna Lee, vice president, marketing and communications.

MorningStar’s chief executive officer in Nicaragua.
MorningStar’s Ken Jaeger, founder and chief executive officer, in Nicaragua.

Helping the poor in developing countries has been a life-long passion of MorningStar founder and chief executive officer Ken Jaeger. “My charge to each and every team member is to look for someone to serve on a daily basis,” says Jaeger. “Once we serve others, we find that there is more joy in giving than in receiving, we discover that Service Becomes Us, which is one of our mottos. We have created a company culture where people are inspired to go to work, they feel appreciated, bonded by trust, and they look for ways to serve others instead of being served. This type of culture is contagious. It attracts people with servant hearts. The bottom line is it translates into team members serving our seniors with gracious hearts and helps transform a hurting world one person at a time.”


Staff Programs: Promoting Employee Recognition and Development

Brookdale’s Culinary Arts Institute Road Show has long been known as a fine example of senior living staff development and recognition. The road show brings educational seminars to local Brookdale chefs, managers, and culinary talent, with a focus on cutting-edge techniques and new trends. Each one-day event, held throughout the country, includes discussions and demonstrations on comfort foods, healthy dining for seniors, the company’s quality assurance programs, new flavors, and much more.

But Brookdale is also making a more direct investment in employee development, giving staff members an opportunity to advance their education. Brookdale’s tuition assistance is available to current associates with 12 months of continuous service for successful completion of undergraduate and graduate courses, certifications, licensing, and continuing education units who agree to remain with the company for one year following the reimbursement. The company recently expanded the program to include a student loan reimbursement program to attract more nurses to assisted living. Launched in 2016, the new initiative will reimburse up to $7,000 of a newly hired Brookdale health and wellness directors’ student loans, with $3,500 provided after one year of successful service with the company and another $3,500 provided after the second year of continued achievement.

“This is a different kind of path than hospital nursing and it is a very important one,” Kim Estes, Brookdale senior vice president of clinical services for Brookdale, said in announcing the nursing program last summer. “Rather than providing hands-on care, these nurses shape the overall quality and content of care their community’s seniors receive on a daily basis.”

While a large-scale tuition assistance program may be beyond the purview of smaller companies, investments in education are scalable and worth considering as an employee development and retention tool.

At Benchmark Senior Living, employee recognition takes on a number of forms, including quarterly performance bonuses, “gratitude grams” or thank you cards associates share with each other, financial rewards and recognition for service, and referral bonuses for recruiting new residents as well as staff. These programs work together to support the notion that staff are valued and appreciated. On its associates, the company philosophy states, “We trust them to be accountable, reward them for excellence, and respect their voice by providing them with multiple vehicles through which they are heard.”

I believe that Benchmark’s extensive employee recognition programs contribute to overall culture because people who feel recognized and appreciated tend to recognize and appreciate those around them,” says Tim Reilly, vice president of human resources. “It has a domino effect. Those behaviors elevate the human connection, which is what Benchmark Senior Living is all about.”

But there’s one critical Benchmark benefit that employees hope they’ll never need. The One Company Fund, launched in 2008 after the company’s 10-year anniversary, assists Benchmark associates in times of extreme need and unpredictable hardship.

“Associates on every level appreciate knowing they work for a company that has their back when they have nowhere else to turn,” says Ashley Studley, director of One Company Fund Engagement. “Whether it’s a house fire, sudden illness, car accident, or another emergency, associates know and trust that they can come to us for help.”

In early 2015, the One Company Fund approved a request from an associate at a Benchmark community in Connecticut who had recently received a lung cancer diagnosis, recalls Studley. As the primary provider for her family, she asked for help with medical and household expenses while she underwent chemotherapy. One month after receiving assistance, she sent a thank note and indicated she was eager to return to work in the spring. “About five months later, we were stunned to learn she had lost her battle with lung cancer. It was such a heartbreaking loss. The One Company Fund stepped in right away and paid for her funeral expenses so her family had one less thing to worry about during such a difficult time.”

Even large-scale tragedies have prompted the fund to spring into action. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the fund assisted Benchmark’s many Haitian associates whose families were affected by the tragedy. When Hurricane Matthew hit the same area in 2016, the fund was there to help again. Benchmark associates are eligible for assistance due to fire, family death, natural disaster, a medical issue, or an accident.

The One Company Fund has raised more than $1 million since inception and has awarded dozens of grants to associates and their families. The program is funded by activities and contests, companywide-sponsored events, and individual donations.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie around the fund,” says Studley. “Associates often advocate for one another and urge their colleagues to apply when they may be reluctant to do so. Our associates really feel good about giving back to the Fund and raising money to help their colleagues, and potentially themselves, in crises.

“A program like this can make such a difference in your associates’ lives,” she adds. “Whether it’s $100 or $10,000, a grant has the ability to drastically improve somebody’s situation.”

And perhaps that’s true of any initiative that supports and enhances company culture. A great idea doesn’t have to cost a fortune to have an impact. 

Read more from The Culture Issue of Senior Living Executive magazine

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