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“A sense of purpose is best acquired when one has a sense of agency; that is, the power to affect one’s own destiny.” – Dr. G. Allen Power, Dementia Beyond Disease

Different industries approach engagement in different ways. In the housing industry, for instance, successful resident engagement means that a person is able optimize their own health and wellbeing by participating actively in the amenities offered by the community and connecting with their fellow residents. A resident in this situation is invited by the housing provider to be an active participant in designing their day-to-day living thereby individualizing their experience in a purposeful way.  

In the hospital industry, successful engagement means “patient activation” or ensuring that every patient can take an active role in making decisions about their care plan and how it is executed. By collaborating with patients in this way, the hospital can maximize positive health outcomes for the patient by empowering them to take an active role in their own care while also positively impacting their own business outcomes.  

Experts in the aging and dementia field also focus on the importance of engagement. Jiska Cohen Mansfield provided a basic definition of engagement for those living with dementia as “…the act of being occupied or involved with an external stimulus.”

Beyond just occupying the time of the person living with dementia though, to truly maximize quality of life, the provider or caregiver needs to deeply understand the needs and preferences of the individual. As G. Allen Power reminds us in his book Dementia Beyond Disease, those living with dementia can take an active role in their own care and indeed live purposefully as long as they have the help of their care partners:

“The view that people living with dementia can only receive care and have decisions made for them erodes autonomy, while meaning flows from the ability to make choices and give input into things that matter to oneself and others.”

It is time for the senior care industry to take note of how preserving a person’s agency in the care process is a necessary component of purposeful engagement. Today’s providers need to recognize the absolute importance of understanding that every person, no matter their current cognitive abilities, can have a purposeful life if the community invests resources in the staff members who are charged with providing care. Optimizing resident engagement is a collaborative journey that should take place between all staff, residents, family members and senior leadership.

How can true person-centered resident engagement be accomplished? Providers can begin by building a solid foundation for successful engagement with three key ideas in mind:

  • Elevate the activity role

Too often the activities department is understaffed and asked to accomplish a lot each day with a very small budget. Without an adequate staff to resident ratio, quality of life can suffer. These issues are made worse because resident engagement is still primarily tracked by paper-based methods. Optimizing resident engagement means that management must elevate the role of those whose job it is to lead engagement by providing them with the time, tools, and budget they need to succeed. These professionals truly are “Chief Engagement Officers” and need to be treated this way.

  • Empower through technology support

When technology is brought in to support the work of activity professionals, they can focus more of their time on meaningfully engaging residents, not just on research and preparation of engagement programming. With more time, the activities department can focus on communicating with each resident to better understand their current needs, planning engagement based on those needs, implementing the plan with the help of technology in real-time and evaluating their success based on the changing needs and preferences of the resident.

  • Engage by knowing the person

Engagement cannot be optimized unless a care partner has the time they need to learn about a resident’s life and understand how to connect with them based on their current needs and preferences. By using the important work of the Preference Based Living team, a community can begin to implement a strategy for:

  • Learning about individual preferences
  • Designing and implementing care aligned with those individual preferences
  • Measuring the quality of preference-based care in diverse settings

Resident engagement professionals know that engagement is so much more than just providing activities to occupy residents each day. A more accurate definition of resident engagement can be crafted when senior care providers approach their work by first asking three key questions:

  • Are we engaging everyone in the community?
  • Are we engaging each resident based on their current needs and preferences?
  • Are we thinking about wellbeing and evaluating outcomes in real-time?
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By asking these questions each day, a more precise definition of successful resident engagement begins to emerge: it is the act of continuously collaborating with those in our care to ensure they can live each day with purpose, whatever that may mean for each unique person.