Gotcha! The fine art of nursing home prankster-ism

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April Fools’ Day, which was yesterday, has always been one of those “whatever” holidays for me. I enjoy practical jokes as much as the next guy, but I think it’s best to watch other people get pranked than to do the actual pranking. Too much effort.

Fortunately, not everyone feels the same way, and every year, countless people the world over get the wool yanked over their eyes in the most hilarious of ways.

Recently, we asked readers to share with us some of their favorite jokes they have played on residents and staff. We got quite a few good April Fools’ responses, but there was one merry prankster who really stood out.

Darlene Starr has been administrator at Maple Lawn Medical Care Facility in Coldwater, MI, for the last 13 years. During that time, she’s managed to pull off quite a few truly awesome and well thought-out pranks. There are honestly too many great practical jokes that she played to list, so I’ve narrowed them down to my three favorites:

1. “I held a staff meeting where I announced that I was instituting the ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’ program. I told them that each employee would work in a different department for a minimum of two days a month, beginning the next day. I assigned dietary to maintenance, nursing to laundry, activities to housekeeping, etc., etc. When I got to the part about maintenance working as CNAs, I felt the glare of steely eyes go right through me! One maintenance employee had a piece of rope in his hand and he was winding the rope around and around his hand—I was sure he was imagining it was my neck! At the end of the meeting, I announced that it was an April Fools’ joke—relief and smiles were immediately evident!”

2. “A stretcher was delivered to our local ambulance company and I was able to acquire the long, narrow box that it came in. I made official-looking address labels to individual department managers in our facility. I set the box in the receiving area and placed an address label on the box. I then got into the box and waited for the individual to open their ‘surprise!’ After ‘getting’ one staff member, I swore him/her to secrecy, replaced the address label with one for another staff member and ‘got’ the next one!”

And my personal favorite…

3. “We had a construction project going on and there was a big hole in one of the storage rooms. I constantly had to remind the construction crew to keep the door locked just in case a resident wandered into the remote part of this building. On April First, I put our training mannequin in the hole, put a hat on him and put a wheelchair, on its side, beside the hole. I never had to remind the crew to lock the door again!”

We tried to reach Starr to see what delightful deviance she had in store for residents and staff this year, but she was unavailable. We can only assume she was plotting her next hilarious prank!

A good one

Now just think: What if federal regulators ever felt the urge to be mischievous? I can see the “news” now …

A new proposal from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced today would add new dimensions to the nursing home star rating system: hearts, clovers, horseshoes and blue moons.

“I got the idea this morning at breakfast,” said CMS acting administrator Charlene Frizzera, who reportedly enjoys a bowl of Lucky Charms every day before work. “Now, instead of just five stars, we can rate nursing homes in a new and delicious way.”

According to the proposal, nurse-staffing levels will be rated using little red marshmallow hearts, and facility inspection outcomes represented by horseshoes. CMS officials declined to identify the confectionary significance of either clovers or blue moons.

Frizzera said she hopes the new marshmallow-based rating system will ease some of the tension created by the previous stars-only rating system, which was not well received by many in the nursing home industry.

There were signs it could be working. American Health Care Association President and CEO Bruce Yarwood called the change “a tasty treat,” though he suggested a Crunch-Berry-based rating system could more accurately reflect the state of nursing homes around the country.

American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging President and CEO Larry Minnix declined comment. Aides said he had secretly been rooting for a Cocoa Puffs-related recognition system.

History of the ‘ha ha’

In case you were wondering (because I know I was), April Fools’ Day has a pretty cool history. (I think, anyway. But then, I’m kind of a nerd like that.) To be fair, no one REALLY knows where or when the whole business of pranking people on the first of April started, but the prevailing theory places its origins sometime in the late 1500’s in France.

According to my Internet research (which consisted of a delightful combination of Wikipedia and Google), when King Charles IX of France introduced the Gregorian calendar (which we still use today), he changed the date of the New Year from a week (March 25-April 1) to one day (Jan. 1). (A whole week of festivities.

Imagine the hangover!) People in rural villages either didn’t get the memo or chose to ignore it, and continued to celebrate the new-year at the end of new-year’s week, on April 1.

The more “enlightened” people thought it would be fun to invite these New Years holdouts to fake parties, or send them on fools’ errands. The French, in their own inimitable way, dubbed these gullible Gauls “Poisson d’Avril,” (April Fish) because young, naïve fish are easily caught (

How’s that for a good fish story?

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.