Dr. Eleanor Barbera

Due to a series of unfortunate events, both of my previously independent parents were recently injured over the course of five weeks. In the past, I’d been the granddaughter, the niece and the daughter-in-law of someone in long-term care, but I’ve now taken on the very different role of daughter of a resident.

In between errands, trips to medical appointments and calls to the facility, I’ve been making mental notes of insights afforded me by my new perspective and that of my family members.

Here are some thoughts from someone who’s seen the long-term care world from both sides now:

•  It’s worthwhile to have a pleasant and efficient receptionist. I don’t often call the facilities in which I work so it hasn’t affected me personally if the automated telephone system sends callers into a netherworld of options and hang-ups or if the receptionist is curt or bumbling.

As a family member, however, it’s tremendously reassuring to have a calm, competent individual answering questions and guiding me to the appropriate staff member.

•  Visitor areas are scrutinized. While my general philosophy is that I’d much rather be in a place that focuses on emotional and physical comfort than on outward appearances, my visiting family members are definitely aware of disrepair, cleanliness levels and shabbiness.

When prioritizing these matters, locations frequented by guests should be high on the list since family members are often a referral source to facilities. While a fancy lobby makes a good impression, visitors are more likely to spend time with their relatives in a lounge or patio and to use the guest bathrooms, so attend to these locations first.

•  Warm, friendly staff members are gold. Families are keenly aware of whether they’re getting blank looks and suspicious stares or welcomes and introductions. Train staff members to acknowledge all visitors, at a minimum, with a nod or a hello. To make a memorable impression, teach them to ask, “May I help you?”

In my experience as a direct care provider, the main reason families aren’t properly greeted (aside from lack of training) is because workers are afraid that eye contact and an amiable demeanor will lead to time-consuming questions asked of someone who can’t answer them. As part of the staff training, include ways to quickly and politely direct questions to the correct team member.

•  Families appreciate even-tempered acceptance of altered plans. Corollary: It’s easier than expected to become a “difficult” family. Changing roles, miscommunication, physical setbacks, rescheduled medical appointments, transportation problems — that’s just the beginning of the list of potential obstacles to being the “good” family who graciously accepts the care offered without a hitch. When difficulties arise or plans change, staff members who rectify errors and adjust schedules with an unruffled, “no problem” attitude soothe the nerves of frazzled relatives trying to help their loved ones. Unflappability is an important point to add to customer service training sessions.

I’m finding that being long-term care worker visiting a facility as a family member is a little like eating out at a restaurant after having waited tables. I notice everything, I know how it’s supposed to be done and there’s not a whole lot I can do about anything – except to bring the good I see back to the places I can influence.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of “The Savvy Resident’s Guide,” is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Gold Medal blogger in the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with more than 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.