We serve the poor and aged (and love a great hotel)

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Tim Mullaney
Tim Mullaney

Blessed are the poor, the priests said while we Catholic school students sat in opulent churches of fine marble, stained glass and dark wood, maybe with touches of silver and gold. The cognitive dissonance I felt sitting in those pews comes back to me a bit here at the beautiful Gaylord National, where the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living is holding its annual convention. Messages about how the long-term care sector exists to serve the neediest and most vulnerable can seem hollow in this sprawling hotel complex, with its high-end steakhouse and a breathtaking glass atrium offering stunning Potomac River views. Don't forget money is what really makes the world go round, the surroundings seem to be saying.

Obviously, there are sophisticated things ways to think about the relationship between doing good and making money. But I don't want to be sophisticated; I'm going to keep it simple and go back to my grade school days. Back then, one way that I made sense of that "blessed are the poor"/"wow this church is fancy" problem was to focus on the people rather than the building. No matter how extravagant the church, the priests and nuns reliably seemed to be practicing what they preached. Sure, now I know that even the pope might wear Prada, but in my experience, priests and nuns all wore simple clothes, drove unremarkable cars, and lived in modest or even austere dwellings. In short, they were poor. They were walking the walk and talking the talk.

If the Gaylord National is the fancy church, the speakers at yesterday's General Session were the priests and nuns. Take Pat Giorgio, chairwoman of the National Center for Assisted Living Board of Directors. She spoke of how she received a graduate degree in theology and took a long-term care job merely as a way of making money while earning a second degree — but she quickly found her calling doing pastoral care, and then some, at the facility. She spoke with great conviction of caregiving as a covenant.

Then there's Len Russ, AHCA's chairman. He talked about his first career, as a producer of network TV news; he became disillusioned with the media and found he wasn't making a difference in people's lives but was simply trying to get through broadcasts without making “an egregious error.” He compared his life to his father's — a survivor of the Holocaust, his dad was running a long-term care facility. As we know, Russ gave up life in the media fastlane in favor of the family business.

The association's president and CEO, Mark Parkinson, shared a story from his days running his first assisted living facility. As an independent owner, Parkinson himself was responsible for landscaping. After learning that one resident liked red flowers, he took it upon himself to plant various varieties in the front garden, so that she could look out and see red blooms at nearly any time of year.

General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, gave a remarkable keynote address (keep an eye out for Editor Jim Berklan's forthcoming blog, which will give it more of the attention it deserves). A child of the Bronx, educated in public schools, he hasn't let the perks of high office warp his perspective  — last year, he gave a substantial cash gift to a local door-to-door saleswoman he had befriended, when he learned she needed the money for a medical procedure.

Powell included that anecdote to make a point about the inequities of the U.S. healthcare system, but hearing it in the context of all the other speeches, I couldn't help but think that he fit right in with the long-term care leaders who had taken the stage. (And undoubtedly many leaders and other LTC professionals in the audience as well.)

You could cynically argue that all these speakers mainly wanted to present themselves in a flattering light. But unless you think they were out-and-out lying about their pasts and actions, you have to acknowledge that they have walked the walk. They have served the neediest and most vulnerable, and not out of a desire for glory or riches — they have in fact in some cases given up riches and social status to do something that they believe in deeply. Knowing that makes it a lot easier for me to enjoy the pricey steak and stunning river views.

Tim Mullaney is McKnight's Senior Staff Writer. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.

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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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