At The Buckingham, a senior living community in Houston, 20 independent living residents are wearing smiles (and red aprons!) to help their skilled nursing neighbors.

In the fall of 2018, resident Emily Ryan was recovering from a hip injury at The Buckingham. She noticed that many of her fellow residents lacked visitors and appeared isolated and dejected. She knew something had to be done to help patients reconnect with others, so she decided to take matters into her own hands. Enter, The Smile Squad. 

Due to COVID-19 setbacks, The Smile Squad officially launched at the start of this year. What initially began as a group of five volunteers has now grown into a dedicated crew of 20 Buckingham independent living residents. Every day, two squad members visit each room located on the community’s two skilled nursing floors. During their visits, volunteers may play games with patients, gift them with helpful items, or simply provide a listening ear. 

“We get them to think about their memories and their past. It really does seem to cheer them up,” said Ryan.

Ryan and her partner visit up to 25 rooms when they volunteer, spending around 10 minutes in each room. Skilled nursing residents appreciate having someone pay attention to their wants and needs, especially a peer. Ryan told McKnight’s that orchestrating this program has required little to no expense and that the true purpose of the Smile Squad is to forge relationships between all types of Buckingham residents.  

Jeanette Mitchell, the Manager of Lifestyle at The Buckingham, has been working with Ryan for the past five years to help The Smile Squad come to fruition. 

She described the happy moment when Ryan proposed the idea to her: “I felt like this would do a lot of justice to the residents in regards to making them feel welcome and loved.” 

For facilities interested in creating their own such squad, Mitchell recommends staff members take a more hands-off approach and allow the volunteers to “have more involvement.” She says staff members can still provide guidance through giving volunteers a list of things they can and cannot ask per HIPAA. All members of The Buckingham’s Smile Squad undergo minimal training to ensure volunteers know how to appropriately speak with skilled nursing residents. 

Ryan shared a story about one skilled nursing resident from the Ukraine who was unable to communicate with nursing staff. Fortunately, a member of The Smile Squad spoke Ukrainian and offered to help make the patient feel more at ease. This simple interaction transformed one’s patient experience in an indelible way.

“There is something very special about peer-to-peer connection,” said Shannon Schmidt, The Buckingham’s Director of Lifestyle. “When you get someone there because they want to be there, it is something special.” 

A number of members of The Smile Squad have been in skilled nursing at one point so they see quite clearly the importance in having visitors. And the benefits go both ways, according to Ryan. 

“I’m so grateful that I’ve met some of the people that I’ve met… The bottom line for life (is), ‘If you’re not contributing, what’s the point?’”