How Senior Living Residents Can Be Leaders

How senior living residents can be leadersMany people take on leadership roles throughout their lives. It may have started when they were in elementary or high school, then continued into their college years and throughout their professional career. Perhaps they held an office with their industry’s trade association … or stepped up to coach their children’s sports teams … or took an active role in their church … or served on committees of local civic organizations. When these individuals reach their retirement years and potentially make a move into senior living, their predisposition toward leadership shouldn’t have to change. In their new living environment, they should still be able to be a leader among their peers.

Providing a Voice

Residents in senior living deserve a voice in shaping their communities. Sometimes it takes one or two individuals with leadership abilities to speak up—not only on behalf of themselves but also on behalf of other residents who are reticent to vocalize their thoughts.

Some senior living communities have town halls or resident councils, in which residents can provide input into various activities and policies and also bring up conflicts or grievances that may need to be resolved. The key is for residents to have a say in how they live, with leaders stepping forward to ensure that everyone’s opinion is heard and that various preferences are taken into account when decisions are being made about their day-to-day life and activities.

Asserting a Choice

“The word ‘choice’ should be at the center of gravity” at senior living communities, says Gail Kohn, who is an expert on aging and senior living issues. Kohn currently serves as coordinator for Age-Friendly DC and also has extensive experience in the senior living space, most notably as executive director of Collington, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in the Washington, D.C., metro area for 18 years. “CCRCs are now referred to as ‘Life Plan Communities’ by the long-term care focused trade organization, Leading Age. There are good reasons for that.”

Based on that experience, Kohn has seen firsthand the importance of residents being able to maintain a sense of control in their lives even in a group living environment. “What we want is for people to be able to make decisions based on their preferences,” she says. “Something that is very important is that you get to make your own choices— work or not work, live together with same-age persons or among others of all ages. You get to go your own way.”

Small But Impactful

Being a leader in senior living is often easier in smaller, more intimate environments where individual voices can carry weight and bring about change. As an example, Kohn points to the Green House Project, a model for living with frailties that is characterized by a smaller, more residential-like setting as opposed to a larger, more institutionalized environment. It’s easier to have more impact on policy decisions in such settings. Those who are reluctant to speak up and voice their opinions in large groups may be more willing to be heard in smaller, more intimate group settings.

“Small is better than large,” Kohn says. “Having 150 residents in a building is not something that has to happen. You can have smaller buildings, side by side, that are arranged in a neighborhood and still achieve economies of scale.”

Finding a Sense of Purpose

Residents who have a say in their day-to-day activities are more likely to have a sense of purpose than those who follow a schedule drawn up by somebody else, Kohn adds. Quite simply, it’s easier for residents to be eager to get out of bed in the morning knowing that they have had a hand in determining the activities that are on the daily calendar.

“My favorite model is one in which the residents have gotten together to plan what they want to do,” Kohn says. “It’s not a schedule in which everything is planned out for them and taken care of by staffers. On the contrary, it’s a schedule that includes various things that the people who live there want to do. If they want to have book discussions, theatrical groups, art activities, etc., they are the ones who have determined to do it.

“I think it’s harder to engage people when someone else has already set a schedule of ‘this is how it’s going to be,’” Kohn adds. “It’s much more fun to participate when you were involved in the planning and making something happen  because you want to be a part of it.”

CHIME IN: How does your parent exhibit leadership in senior living?

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