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What drives the success of a wellness culture in senior living?

May 15, 2019 Article 7 min read
Greg Hensley Plante Moran Living Forward
Are you the living example of their dream or just dreaming? Your senior living organization’s underlying attitudes and behaviors may be holding your wellness culture back from becoming the driving force behind resident referrals and thriving operations.

Seniors stretching in a gym during a wellness class at a senior living community

This article was created in tandem with Jan Montague, MGS, Executive Director of San Clemente Village and President of Whole-Person Wellness International.

Wellness is more than a mere trend in senior living. It’s becoming the preferred lifestyle of adults across the United States who are choosing a way of life centered on wellness and fulfillment as they define it for themselves. For many organizations, developing a culture that supports wellness will require changes to three layers of your operations: environments, attitudes/behaviors, and programs.

In a previous blog post, we discussed how repositioning your environments to embrace wellness could improve occupancy. You can read about wellness environments here.

In this post, we’ll discuss why a change in your organization’s attitudes and behaviors is an essential step to repositioning to wellness, and more importantly, how to start the process toward systemic change.

Sign up for our monthly emails so you don’t miss the next article covering the final area that catalyzes change: wellness programs and engagement.

Looking beneath the surface

Quite a few years ago, I met Mary. Mary, a retired engineer, was intelligent and loved to travel. She had no family and was looking to surround herself with positive people who loved life, a search that led her to consider an option marketed as a “Wellness Life Plan.”

Despite its messaging, the staff still prescribed to a very “clinical” way of managing the healthcare risk of older adults. They assessed Mary into quantifiable numbers, disease states, and measurements — almost to the point where they couldn’t see past the healthcare risk the numbers represented. She was a fall risk, she was at risk of being immobile, she was at risk for diabetes, heart attack, and on.

But there was more to Mary than the numbers. Mary was well everywhere except physically, and she needed an encouraging coach who would challenge her to accomplish her own wellness goals: lose enough weight so she can enjoy traveling more, take walking tours in exotic places, and live the life she wanted.

In taking all those measurements, the clinicians missed the critical, driving point of a wellness culture: understanding the client from a whole-person, humanistic perspective* to help Mary reach her desired level of wellness. It’s about what is right with Mary, not what is wrong!

Senior living’s misconceptions about wellness

Many providers have the same misconception about wellness that Mary encountered in her experience. Yet research from ICAA and U.S. National Health Interview Survey has indicated that a wellness culture is a big draw for consumers, and a thriving wellness culture can even increase how long someone stays at your campus. In a survey of residents at senior living communities across the country, researcher found:

  • Increased satisfaction: About 80% of survey participants said that participating in their community’s wellness programs made them more satisfied with the community.
  • Greater interest: About 50% of survey participants agreed that the community’s wellness program is one of the main reasons they chose to move in.
  • Longer residency: Residents who participate in wellness programs live in the community up to two years longer than non-participants.

Such compelling data has many thinking that advertising a wellness program or center is enough to encourage potential clients, like Mary, to move in and stay for the long haul.

But starting a program of classes and constructing a building are not enough to promote wellness. Fitness, nutrition, and social activities in a beautifully built, brightly lit wellness center can’t make up for an illness mindset in staff — and even residents — that will hold people back from living a well life. Success can only come from the strength of the wellness culture driving the programs, engagement, and environment.

To inspire true wellness, everyone from the leaders of the organization to the front-line staff may need to overhaul their thought processes and habits, challenging the norms and biases we all have from the clinical world we come from. They must take on the old Home-Depot-like slogan of “You can do it, and we can help.” They cannot subscribe to the traditional healthcare culture of “We don’t think it is safe for you.” Nor should they align with the hospitality culture of “Sit back and relax — we can do it for you.”

Wellness must become a way of doing business, and a lifestyle choice, that permeates the mission and fabric of the organization. Without those changes, wellness programs and centers cannot be as effective at attracting and retaining seniors, or at making residents thrive in your community, as you need them to be in order to justify the investment.

Success can only come from the strength of the wellness culture driving the programs, engagement, and environment.

How to cultivate a wellness mindset

Implementing a wellness culture is not easy. Providers can’t simply say, “Let’s do wellness now!” They must cultivate a wellness mindset in the identity of the organization, integrate it into the life of the community, and portray it every day in their attitudes and behaviors. It is like seeing the life of the residents and staff through a new pair of glasses — everything becomes clearer and improved in almost imperceptible ways.

To begin this process of repositioning your community’s attitudes and behaviors toward a wellness culture, three essential steps must happen first:

#1. Be knowledgeable

First, understand the dimensions of wellness.* Wellness is often mistakenly used to mean fitness, but it’s more than just physical health; we fall back on it because it is easy to measure. It should involve addressing every part of a person as a whole, including their emotional, intellectual, physical, social, spiritual, and vocational needs. Wellness aims to help adults take responsibility for their well-being and have an optimistic view on life and aging.

Visit campuses that are known for their wellness cultures with a few of your board members. Contact us if you need assistance finding one near you.

#2. Be introspective

Next, leaders in the organization must decide how wellness will be incorporated into the mission and vision of the organization. When you determine its level of importance, think about what attitudes or behaviors your organization must cultivate in order to challenge the decline and illness expectation so prevalent in senior living communities. Is the way staff talk to, talk about, and behave toward residents consistent with a wellness culture? What about how residents refer to other residents facing challenges as they age? These are clear indicators of the culture.

#3. Be purposeful

Finally, don’t spend a dollar on a new wellness center until you have a strategic plan in place to bring everyone on the journey to a new wellness culture. Any change — whether it’s a small shift from your current state or a large departure — is more successful if it starts from the executive team and is supported by leadership and management. Staff and residents should also be intentionally engaged and understand the concepts underpinning the culture for them to be encouraged by the positives of successful aging.

Any change is more successful if it starts from the executive team and is supported by leadership and management.

Reaping the benefits of a wellness culture

As you challenge yourself and your leadership team to be knowledgeable about wellness, honest and introspective in your strategic planning, and purposeful in the steps you take to adopt a wellness culture, keep in mind that these changes are well worth the effort, as they will become catalysts for many positive results.

Because of the demand for wellness, efforts to reposition to a wellness culture will improve future occupancy, lead to more referrals, and reduce the amount of turnover in your units. Because a wellness culture encourages staff to feel empowered in roles that have shifted from caring for seniors to coaching them to thrive, you will be rewarded with lower turnover rates.

And the benefit for residents? They may find the same happy ending we see in Mary’s story: After becoming a member of a community with a strong wellness culture, Mary had lost the weight she wanted and was swimming 30 minutes a day. When she got back from her most recent trip to Europe, she was ecstatic to share that she went on every excursion without pain in her joints, including a two-mile mountain hike! Mary is living her dream; she could do it, and the community’s team did help.

How do you think your organization would have viewed Mary? Why is that? What biases and behaviors do we have that could be changed for the better? Can we challenge those in ourselves and in others?

If you’d like help exploring ways to create a wellness culture in your organization, reach out to us today to learn about our strategic planning and repositioning consulting services.

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This article was created in tandem with Jan Montague, MGS, Executive Director of San Clemente Village and President of Whole-Person Wellness International.

* Information about whole person wellness and the dimensions of wellness can be found in Chapter 9: Whole-Person Wellness for Successful Aging, Physical Activity Instruction of Older Adults, 2nd Edition, by Debra Rose. You can purchase the book here, if you’d like to read more. For a snapshot, check out Jan’s article in the Assisted Living Consult (July/August 2007 edition).

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