This all started about 2 months ago when my wife and I were on a walk, talking about my short career in long-term care. I marveled that I had been with the same company (The Ensign Group) for 9 years. AIT-Administrator of 3 facilities-AIT Program/Leader Development/Support guy …
That walk/talk stimulated a lot of reflection in what I want out of my next 10 years. A strong desire (maybe need?) has risen to the surface to take my (and our company’s) experience and do something transformative with it for the benefit of today’s and tomorrow’s long-term care residents. That could sound a little quixotic (side note: Don Quixote: One of my all time favorite stories/inspirations and a great motivating tool for staff) but I think it’s actually a pretty common experience for people in long-term care. As I looked in the 9 year mirror I see myself on this curve:
As an AIT I started out like most — fired up, wanting to treat each resident like family, eager to learn and improve this embattled industry. The empathy I felt was very high. Feeling sorry for a lot of the long-term residents who had no family support. Feeling a bit shocked at the scene of a resident being wheeled down on a PVC pipe roller chair to the shower room covered only with a sheet — leaving a trail of diarrhea. Feeling nauseated by the smells during certain procedures. How do I, having never worked in a nursing home before, get used to that?! Feeling pretty impotent to change things for the better until I learn why they’re done this way in the first place. What have I gotten myself into?
So what happens/happened?
You start to cope. I suppose we all cope differently. But as you cope, you ‘fall’ not just on the empathy curve but into a too-casual relationship with the profession. Some signs of the coping fall …
- You call Virginia in room 24 bed A by a different name: 24-A, ‘the hip’, Medicare Patient, etc. This dehumanizing of ‘Virginia’ helps you cope with all of the residents you’ve let down some way. It also speeds up communication with the others at the facility who don’t really know Virginia.
- You are less shocked by the sights, sounds, and realities of life as a nursing home resident.
- You rationalize away your loss of empathy as not a loss of empathy but as a better understanding of why things are always done that way.
- You spend your time on delivering the things your company measures regardless of how in line with your values or vision those measurements are.
- You don’t smell the smell that first-timers do. 🙂
You survive for a while and then you begin to thrive. Your experience and success builds confidence to experiment, to find YOUR VOICE. You begin to need more than simple survival. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs illustrates a theory of the different levels of human need that you see in yourself as an administrator. This analogy is a bit forced but you’ll get the idea.
You first need to survive. That ‘Physiological’ need means you have to not lose your job 🙂 You need to learn, perform to how your measured, fit in, etc. With some time and success your needs graduate to the ‘Safety’ need. Here you pass some surveys; you put a team together; you learn from your mistakes; you change your style to be more effective. You start to float between Safety and ‘Belonging’ as you find some balance in your life. you perform well financially; you’re recognized in your organization as an important partner. The trouble is … this is the bottom of the Empathy Curve. You may stay here for the rest of your career, quite comfortable.
But with time, you start to feel a need to do more with what you’ve received. You feel a need to not only run an outstanding facility, but to transform long-term care in the eyes of the residents. You wrestle with some tough questions as you confront the brutal facts …
- What truly makes us different from our competition (in the eyes of the community)? Wouldn’t our competitors say that they are nice and caring just like we say? What can only we say about being a resident here that our competition cannot?
- Is it a significantly better experience to be a resident in my facility than at an average facility elsewhere? In other words, is sleeping, waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, going to activities, going to therapy, receiving medications, etc. a significantly better experience than your average facility?
You feel a higher need pulling you up from the coping gravity to see things (again) from the residents’ perspective. You are extremely proud of surviving and then succeeding at one of the most difficult jobs anywhere. You are proud of how you’ve treated your employees (for the most part). You are proud of the company you’ve helped grow. You are proud of the facilities that have improved qualitatively and quantitatively under your leadership. Now what?
Now you feel a new, familiar need to change the industry. You feel a need to fight the CALF PATHS and the gravity that limits our vision of what we can and should do.
The difference between that need/empathy today vs. when you began is that now you have the knowledge and wherewithal (what a great catch-all word) to do something about it.
There are a handful of companies and leaders in long-term care that are ‘ahead of the curve’ (get it?) when it comes to changing the industry. BUT, it seems like the movement is way too slow. One major initiative is the resident-centered approach as illustrated here.
I love the concept. I think it is on target to where we need to take long-term care. But, the cultural, financial, and regulatory obstacles are real and in many cases prohibitive for an administrator to experiment with.
For my next 10 years I want to work at clearing those obstacles away. AND, more importantly, I want to figure out how to lessen the slope and duration of the drop and bottom of the empathy curve for others. Skilled nursing companies have to find the right people, find the right measurements and establish a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation in order to do more than simply survive. We and our residents ‘need’ it.