Read all about it: Journalists writing residents' stories leads to success

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

There's a question that's key to the long-term care industry but all too often — for a variety of reasons — goes unanswered: Who were your residents before they became your residents?

The people you care for every day had families, interests, careers and stories formed long before that entered your doors. But between packed schedules, staff turnover and residents' memory loss, those stories often go untold.

That's the problem Jay Newton-Small, a former journalist based in Washington, DC, ran into when she helped move her Alzheimer's-stricken father into a long-term care facility three years ago. Part of the admissions process included filling out a 20-page questionnaire about her father, a well-intentioned step that Newton-Small realized probably wouldn't help the staff learn about the incredible life he led before coming to the facility.

“I was like, ‘You're never going to have time to read 20 pages on each patient,” Newton-Small recently told the Washington Post.

So she tapped into her journalistic abilities and offered to write a “story” on her father for the staff. The result was a profile that included photos from her father's childhood, a list of his favorite songs and hobbies, a brief family tree and anecdotes about travels and career.

Newton-Small's project snowballed into writing similar profiles for friends until it became MemoryWell, an online startup that's helped created profiles for three long-term care facilities, with five others lined up to start their own pilots of the program.

Despite being in business for a relatively short time, the results of the MemoryWell project have been positive for and earned raves from residents, families and long-term care providers alike.

The MemoryWell stories have also helped provide solutions to problems providers didn't realize they had, like in the case of one resident who would become agitated when a bell was rung to signify meal times. The resident's story revealed that he had been a firefighter, trained to spring into action when he heard the clang of a bell.

The family of another resident was relieved to know her MemoryWell profile included anecdotes about her past as a civil rights activist, a detail that previously had been overshadowed by dementia-related agitation.

“It's helpful for them to know that, ‘Even though now she's yelling at me, last year she was yelling in a protest,'” the resident's daughter told the Post.

Newton-Small, who currently operates MemoryWell with the help of freelance journalists, stresses the importance of having the stories and profiles written by professionals. In the hands of a trained journalist, residents' stories become quick and easy to read, touching on the most important information. That's compared to stories written by families that are sometimes “terribly written,” and “take months and months” to be completed, Newton-Small added.

MemoryWell's unique use of professional journalists to write its resident profiles is something that, to me as a journalist myself, just makes sense. We're trained to break down piles of information into something that's easy and informative to read, and hone in on what's most important. While families obviously will know a resident best, in this instance a journalist or other communication professional serves as an important bridge to transforming a family's story into something useable for long-term care staff.

MemoryWell's scope is still fairly small — Newton-Small is set to begin a residency next month at a foundation in D.C. that helps start-ups create a business plan — but its key strategy of professionally-written stories is something providers should look to tap into in their own facilities.

While it's unlikely that you have a (non-McKnight's) journalist on speed dial, there may be freelancers in your area looking to take on a unique project, or classes of college journalism students in need of experience. As MemoryWell's successes show, the benefits residents' life stories can bring to a facility are there — they're just waiting to be told.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.

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.