Addressing residents' deepest fear

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.

In the TV show “Mad Men,” the Sterling Cooper advertising executives find out how consumers feel about the product they're pitching by holding focus groups. They ask people who use their product what they like and don't like about it, how they use it and what it means to them.

As a long-term care psychologist, one of my main tasks is to sit down and talk in-depth with residents on a regular basis. I've basically conducted 20 years of focus groups. The single most common comment I've heard from residents over the years: “I never thought I would end up in a place like this.”

While it's probably not the case for people who entered swanky continuing care retirement communities of their own accord well in advance of a health crisis, many residents feel like it's a personal failure to be in long-term care. They think if they'd done something different, or earned more money, or if they'd had children, or had a better relationship with their children, or if they had better children, or something, then they wouldn't have “ended up” in a long-term care home.

As a psychologist, I assure them that they didn't do anything wrong and neither did anyone else necessarily. I inform them that many of the nicest and best people I know are living in long-term care. Occasionally, I introduce one awesome person to another. In psychology terms, we call this “normalizing” the experience. It helps a lot.

Below are some ways in which you can allay the residents' concerns that they have lost the game of life by being in your establishment:

• Include on your website stories of amazing residents. If that exemplary person can be there, potential residents will feel that it's a club they might want to join too. Include not just individuals who have achieved a traditionally successful life (money, fame, education), but also those who have accomplished unusual feats (raised 11 children, sky-dived in their 70s) or who overcame poverty, prejudice, or disability to lead a good and decent life.

• Establish a welcoming committee of residents who can offer a supportive and a positive face to becoming part of the facility. Let new admissions see for themselves that nice people live in long-term care. The welcoming committee will need staff support for training, regular meetings, and occasional physical assistance in visiting new residents. Think of it as a marketing investment. It will reassure families to see loved ones talking about new friends and be something rehab patients mention when they return to the community.

• Develop a welcome video that shows experienced residents discussing their initial feelings about entering long-term care and how they've come to make friends and create a home. Hearing peers share concerns is a powerful way to address negative feelings residents may have about their new environment.

• Consider adding a therapeutic writing exercise to recreational activities. In “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” college students who were struggling in school wrote about their experiences, which they attributed to lack of ability. Students who then saw a movie in which other students talked about how much time it takes to adjust to college were much less likely to drop out of school. I predict that residents who write about their feelings regarding LTC and then watch a video of peers discussing the adjustment period will have much more positive feelings about their stays.

• Train staff members to offer a hearty welcome as new admissions come through the door. I once observed a somber-faced new resident being wheeled into the lobby while equally serious residents and staff members gave her the once-over. When the recreation director strode over to her and said, “Welcome! I'm Tina,” the look of terror on the new resident's face was replaced with relief and a smile.

If we address new residents' hidden concerns, we can better show them we understand and care about how they feel. We can enhance their experiences upon entering our organizations and can market our services in a way that relieves their anxiety.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, is a 2014 Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the 2014 American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A consultant with nearly 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.

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