It's time to talk about long-term care's diversity problem

Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

Long-term care leadership has a diversity problem. Don't believe it? Travel to a national long-term care convention and look around — what do the majority of attendees look like?

They look the same, if you ask those who attended and spoke at a roundtable discussion on diversity held at last week's LeadingAge annual meeting in Indianapolis. It was the first real, open dialogue on the issue that the group held at one of its national meetings, the speakers noted. And it couldn't come at a more critical time.

One audience member lamented the fact that the LeadingAge meeting was “not reflective at all” of their home organization — they noticed a lack of nurses aides and nurses assistants who could visit conferences to learn, and return to their facility inspired to move up the ranks. Another voiced concerns that the group's mission — tackling ageism in America — didn't address how they planned to be a voice for diversity in the long-term care industry.

But as the conversation progressed, it became clear that the problem wasn't just with LeadingAge's annual gathering. The industry has a “sameness” problem that permeates the majority of long-term care organizations, communities and boards.

“In a lot of organizations you don't see [diversity]. You see sameness. Same people, same ideas, because that has worked for 120 years,” noted Steven Nash, president and CEO of Stoddard Baptist Global Care in Washington, D.C.

The opportunities for diversity at all levels are “tremendous” in a lot of long-term care organizations, Nash said, but those opportunities are often missed.

“If everyone we put forward looks like us, whoever ‘us' is, that really raises the question of ‘Do we really value inclusion?'” responded roundtable facilitator Joanne Smikle, Ph.D., principal consultant for Ellicott City, MD-based Smikle Training Services.

There are obstacles to fostering diversity among long-term care leadership positions, the speakers acknowledged. People are comfortable with that sameness, and complacent with the way things have been. The obstacles exist at the resident level as well, with some bringing biases against certain races or religions with them upon admission.

But the time is now to face those obstacles, the board agreed, with a tidal wave of baby boomers bearing down on the industry. In addition, the country's ever-growing population of people of color demands a shift in how organizations assemble their leadership teams — or, as Smikle put it, creating inclusion by “shutting up and listening to other voices.”

So how do we fix the problem? Some audience members suggested fostering leaders among their current front line staff through educational opportunities, such as attending state or national conferences. Others said they found success through “telling their story” in front of city councils, and creating partnership programs with high schools and colleges to show young potential employees that a career in long-term care is one full of opportunities for advancement.

To me, the fact that the session was well attended by a diverse group in terms of race, age and gender, and full of constructive dialogue is a positive sign that many providers are aware of their industry's diversity issue, and ready to tackle it head on. As one speaker noted, the end of the LeadingAge meeting wasn't the end of the discussion — it was just the beginning.

How do you foster diversity within your organization's leadership? Comment below to keep the discussion going.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.

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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 Emily Mongan.

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