Who is the best advocate for a resident’s experience? The answer may be a fellow resident. Here’s how several communities cultivate resident engagement through peer support.
When Brenda Gibbons worked as a hairdresser, she saw herself as someone who served her community. Her work gave her a sense of purpose.
After retirement, she moved into The Hidenwood, a Retirement Unlimited community in Newport News, Va. There, she became a member of the Pink Ladies Club, a group of residents who help new residents get settled in.
“It allows me the opportunity to serve again and to give back,” Gibbons says. “I enjoy assisting with tasks and helping new residents to get around the community.”
Residents in senior living communities can be a valuable resource for helping their peers through new adjustments and tough times. Some senior living communities team with their residents to develop programs that give residents the opportunity to serve their peers in creative ways, providing both support for others and purpose for themselves.
Tackling the isolation issue
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, residents at Lifespace Communities’ Abbey Delray South community in Delray Beach, Fla., recognized the risks of isolation their population would face.
In response, the community’s Lifespace Foundation advisory committee, which includes residents, sponsored a series of TED talks and discussions on loneliness facilitated by Chaplain Gary Butler.
“This discussion ignited a desire in the residents to make sure they were doing all they could to help care for their friends and neighbors,” says Jay Lettow, development specialist for the Lifespace Foundation, which allows residents to raise funds for residents, team members, and enhanced services and programs in their communities.
As a result of those discussions, the committee created a phone buddy program to help ease the isolation some fellow residents faced. The program was developed through resident and team member collaboration.
“The phone buddy program provided an important socialization and connection for the few in the community that did not get out regularly,” Lettow says. “It also gave those reaching out an important job in support of their neighbors and friends.”
Six months before the pandemic arrived, Lifespace’s Oak Trace community in Downers Grove, Ill., had formed the Friendly Ambassadors program to help new residents assimilate to the community. Ambassadors have dinner with new residents, take them for tours, and introduce them to others, among other steps.
“One of the most important things they do is have conversations with the new residents about their interests and then connect them to other residents with similar interests,” says Paula Banno, lifestyle director at Oak Trace.
“Additionally, the friendly ambassadors check in with everyone on their floor periodically. They leave baked goods and cards, especially if they know the resident is feeling down.
“When COVID-19 prevented in-person socialization, we had one friendly ambassador walk around playing her flute outside of residents’ doors, so they would know they weren’t alone.”
Ambassadors host welcoming parties when possible. One activity at the party includes participants grabbing random questions from a bowl—Who was your first love? What was your first job?—to spark group conversations.
“It’s almost magical how simple questions like these get everyone talking and sharing,” Banno says. “Even our friendly ambassadors have become closer with one another.”
Pairing and sharing
Chelsea Senior Living, which has 16 communities in New York and New Jersey, hosts a resident ambassador program that facilitates the transition of new residents to its communities by pairing them with current residents.
“This is something Chelsea Senior Living has implemented in many of our communities for years,” says Jason Kahn, director of communications.
Kahn says the primary benefits of the program are the immediate socialization opportunities for new residents and the way existing residents can make new arrivals quickly feel comfortable in a way staff would struggle to replicate.
“Residents at our communities assisting new residents share their experiences and relationships [and] that makes the transition seamless for the new resident,” Kahn says.
Chelsea’s lifestyles director creates a calendar full of activities that allows the new and current residents to interact in social ways that help the new residents meet other residents and grow accustomed to their new environment.
“Our resident groups have formed friendships organically resulting from various breakout groups and activities,” Kahn says.
The “go-to person”
The resident ambassador program of Retirement Unlimited, which has 10 communities in Virginia, aims to encourage peer-to-peer interactions and inspire personal connections among residents.
Resident ambassadors greet new residents during their tour and help them on their move-in day. They also offer to host welcome gatherings, accompany new residents to their first few meals in the dining room, and help new residents to attend and interact with other residents during life enrichment programming, activities, and clubs.
“Our resident ambassadors are very active and proud to be the voice and the ‘go-to person’ in their communities,” says Beth Kolnok, vice president of communications and engagement for Retirement Unlimited.
Members of the Pink Ladies resident ambassador program at The Hidenwood say their participation helps them as much as it helps those new residents they support. “I feel like it’s a gift to serve,” says Emma Jones.
“It feels like I’m contributing to the needs of others,” says Doris Grubb. “I also love getting a chance to engage in hobbies that I love doing.”
A profound impact
Similarly, Waltonwood Ashburn in Ashburn, Va., hosts a resident ambassador program that helps new residents adapt.
The community’s executive director, Christopher Leinauer, says Waltonwood Ashburn’s program stems from the community’s leadership team and resident council working in tandem to orient new residents and make them feel welcome.
“The program has long been in play at Waltonwood Ashburn, originating on a company level from Waltonwood as leadership teams at the communities recognized the importance to acclimate new residents to their communities following such a major life change,” Leinauer says.
Leinauer says the ambassador program aids in connecting new residents with others at the community who have similar interests with the guidance of staff.
“The key to the program’s success is communication at all levels, as this ensures consistency in the experience of each new resident at Waltonwood Ashburn,” Leinauer says.
He says the smiling face of a fellow resident who is willing to show a new resident around and build a friendship with them can have a profound impact on that new resident adjusting to their new home and getting the best possible start on the new chapter in their life. By involving residents, staff can build a welcoming climate.
“The priority is to work toward those ‘goosebump’ moments that help residents not only feel special but known,” Leinauer says.
LCB Senior Living, which operates 31 communities in seven states, suggests the use of resident ambassadors at each of its communities, but the individual programs are driven and shaped by the residents themselves.
LCB Senior Living resident ambassadors do everything from meeting with new residents shortly before or after they move into the community to dining with them to extending invitations to events and gatherings.
They may also contribute a “common questions” supplement to the resident handbook that delves into resident life and provides a resident’s perspective on what new arrivals need to know.
New residents feel supported and engage quickly with their new community, participating in programming and events at a higher rate, and current residents enjoy the opportunity to serve others.
“We’ve all been the ‘new kid’ at some point in our lives—in school, a new job, new town/state, and know how uncertain and overwhelming it can be,” says Courtney Allenson, senior engagement director for The Residence at Otter Creek in Middlebury, Vt.
“We wanted to start new residents off feeling positive, connected, and welcomed, the moment they became a part of our community.”
LCB Senior Living ambassadors work with the sales and engagement teams to learn about new residents and then determine the best match for a primary ambassador and which programs and people to first introduce them to.
Ambassador committees regularly meet with community directors to go over upcoming move-ins and to explore new ways ambassadors can help with the transition.
Monique Foote, senior engagement director of The Residence at Silver Square in Dover, N.H., says her community’s ambassador group has been “wildly successful.”
Over the years, the ambassador committee has grown more autonomous, Foote says, and now meets monthly and operates as a sub-committee of the Residents Advisory Council.
The success of the program throughout LCB Senior Living can be traced to its committed volunteers:
“Any time we (associates) can step back and take a supporting role, letting our residents lead, everyone wins,” Allenson says.
“Each of our residents has so much to offer, it’s just a matter of creating the opportunity for them to be able to thrive and our resident ambassador program does just that.”
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