How would accountability and compassion get along if they sat next to each other at a party? 

Who would be louder? Who would draw more attention? Would one interrupt the other, or would they let each other speak?

Compassion in leadership should be what draws us in, but when busyness, irritation, laziness and poor work ethic crash the party, compassion gets pushed back into the corner. She might even get locked in the kitchen making more appetizers. 

I’ve been reminded over and over that everyone has a story. As leaders, it is our greatest duty to find out what that story is and listen. For us in this field, our responsibility is to put compassion at the head of the table, make sure she is an honored guest and not just an uninvited stranger. 

Our residents aren’t “put” here. Even though we’ve all heard, “I had to put my mom in a nursing home,” they have a story. Our residents are not objects. They are people who have lived full lives. 

Leaders in long-term care must remind even those closest to the residents we serve that our work is more than a series of transactions. We aren’t simply performing services; we are sharing in your loved ones’ lives. We are creating new stories, new experiences, sometimes at the most challenging point in your loved one’s life. 

Oh, and by the way, the caregivers who are sharing this experience have stories of their own. Some are young and just getting started in this world. They are scared. They are nervous. They may have come from a home that hasn’t always been safe. They may be at a crossroads in their life, and long-term care is offering the path less chosen. We must have compassion for their journey. 

Some of our caregivers have been at the party for a very long time. While they care for your loved one, they go home and care for their own parents, partner, children, or friends. They are caregivers, the “work” doesn’t stop when they leave. It’s who they are, and they are to be respected. 

What makes our work even more complicated is the stories don’t stop with residents and families. How regulations are interpreted and carried out creates stories we (providers and regulators) hopefully learn from. 

I lost my patience a few days ago when the expectation was placed on our caregivers that, essentially, they need to be completely free of making mistakes. We already have extremely high expectations, and yet, in our field, another agency tells us there is no room for error. The dynamic between setting expectations, adhering to regulations, and genuinely caring for one another is a tricky one; compassion should drive the experience. 

Leading in a field where everyone has a story is a blessing and a challenge. I believe those of us who value compassion will get it right more times than not. 

It’s unfortunate there isn’t that same level of compassion for those of us who consider this work bigger than ourselves, who consider this work to be anything but transactional. We are “accused” of many things, but what I know is this: we have deeply compassionate people who live and work here who find the time to uncover the stories. 

Accountability will certainly always be invited to the party. She is also necessary. But compassion must have a special invitation and share her voice with everyone who will listen. 

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Julie Thorson was the 2018 recipient of the LeadingAge Dr. Herbert Shore Outstanding Mentor of the Year award. She currently co-facilitates Leading Age Iowa’s Leadership Academy. She is a Leading Age Academy fellow and former coach. The Head Coach (president and CEO) of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA, Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart. A former part-time nursing home social worker, she is a licensed nursing home administrator and completed LeadingAge’s Leadership Educator Program in 2019.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.

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