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2009 Best of the Best Award Winners

Best of the Best Awards 2008

Each year, Assisted Living Executive, the flagship magazine of ALFA, recognizes companies who shake up commonly accepted best practices to get even better results with ground-breaking ideas to expand their business, improve service delivery, boost the bottom line, streamline operations, and more.

2009 Best of the Best

If the winning entries for best practices in this year’s ALFA Best of the Best Awards program are any indication, a bad economy can be a good thing for innovation. While not every winning entry was born out of financial necessity, one of the takeaways from this year’s competition is that tight budgets certainly need not stifle creativity. Some of the best ideas were notably straightforward and affordable, not to mention duplicable.

“This year, there were a lot of submissions focused on human relations, such as training initiatives or going the extra mile to ensure employee support for the direction the company wanted to take,” says Richard G rimes, ALFA’s president and CEO. “But all of these entries speak well of the great desire by so many great companies to be heralded by their own people as an employer of choice.”

Takeaway Themes Tended to Recur Among this Year’s 20 Winning Entries:

Progress happens to individuals, not groups. While group exercise classes respond to the needs of certain populations, some of the winning best practices go a step further to focus on individualized assistance—so that a fitness course mimics specific physical challenges that residents face when out in public.

Successful programs take the time to listen to employees and ensure their buy-in. In many winning entries, companies clearly recognized that companies need to earn employees’ appreciation, as much as the other way around.

Putting seniors’ needs ahead of marketing self-interest is the best reputation builder of all. Witness the building of positive reputations by such indirect means as educating seniors about non-assisted-living issues on the local TV news show, or designating a community-level “personal preferences coordinator” to help residents meet individual goals.

Big benefits can come from small, affordable changes. Many en-tries found new ways to save money while expanding their effectiveness through e-learning initiatives. Even something as straightforward as a company cookbook can have positive and unplanned potential. Here are this year’s ALFA 2009 Best of the Best Award winners—20 in all.


Category: Resident Services

Winner: Benchmark Assisted Living
Wellesley, MA
Arthritis Foundation Partnership

An estimated 70 percent of residents at Benchmark Assisted Living communities suffer from joint pain. So when the Massachusetts provider heard that two local Arthritis Foundation chapters were seeking a partner in a modest proposal to expand the reach of the Foundation’s nationally acclaimed exercise program, the company signed on—and then some.

“It started out as a small grant, and then we realized we had the opportunity through Benchmark University to train almost every community,” says Andrea Catizone, vice president of customer experience.

Ultimately, the foundation certified nearly 100 associates in 42 Benchmark communities to teach the six-week course to Benchmark residents as well as individuals from the community at large. More than 700 enrollees attended the first session held at the communities, including 152 nonresidents.

The partnership marked a series of firsts both for the Arthritis Foundation and for Benchmark. It was the first time the program was made available on such a wide scale, and at no cost to participants; the first time the program reached all six New England states, even areas without a chapter presence; and the first time the program had been modified—thanks to Benchmark’s expertise— for seniors with dementia.

In another first, Benchmark dialed up the whole effort with a little corporate shine, drawing more attention and attendees with a launch party in each community. “We didn’t just do an exercise class,” says Catizone. “People from the Arthritis Foundation came and spoke about it.”

The year-old partnership has garnered several awards, including the foundation’s top national public health award. “Benchmark has been a superb partner to work with,” says Susan Nesci, chief public health and policy officer for the foundation’s Northern and Southern New England Chapter, one of the chapters involved. “They deserve recognition.”


Winner: BPM Senior Living
Portland, OR
Personal Preferences Program

When every provider offers the same basic services and the same promise of independence, choice, and dignity, what sets one community apart from another? BPM Senior Living believes the answer cannot be found in a marketing brochure, but in tapping each resident’s personal preferences.

BPM has established a full-time Personal Preference Coordinator (PPC) at each community to root out residents’ preferred routines, hobbies, special dates, meaningful activities, food choices, and preferences regarding their care. From the day they enter the community, residents have a designated advocate for their “druthers.” The PPC is required to gather each resident’s highest priorities and make them happen, from bathing at an odd hour to pursuing a favorite hobby.

While many companies use “resident interest” forms to get to know a new resident and meet their basic preferences, BPM requires the PPCs to go well beyond that. For example, if making pottery is a resident’s thing, then BPM will either add it to the calendar or recommend another outlet, such as a city-sponsored class. “If it’s at all possible, it needs to happen,” says Kris Brock, director of health services administration.

PPCs also are held accountable each month for coordinating a special surprise or “wow moment” for a resident. “What is a wow moment? It’s not the fact that we had a St. Patrick’s Day party this month. That’s not a wow moment,” explains Brock.

In one wow moment, a PPC arranged for a miniature horse to visit the bedside of a hospice resident with dementia who had been passionate about horses all her life. The resident spent one of her last days stroking the horse’s nose.

The press was not alerted. “We don’t use these wow moments for marketing,” says Brock. But such gestures clearly touch residents, families, and staff, and have enhanced their word-of-mouth reputation, Brock adds. “Every resident deserves wow moments.”


Winner: Brookdale Senior Living
Milwaukee, WI
Clare Bridge Dining Program

Dining with dignity poses a special challenge for residents with dementia. A typical meal involves many intricate tasks, including staying focused and engaged.

“It’s a great challenge,” says Juliet Holt Klinger, director of dementia care and programs for Brookdale Senior Living. “When it’s not done correctly, it can contribute to a lot of chaos. The whole day can not go well.”

Brookdale recently took a second look at how it serves meals to residents in its Clare Bridge homes, to better hone the experience around the needs of its residents, all of whom have dementia.

In-house experts on dining services, clinical issues, and memory care—what Klinger calls the “three-legged stool of dining”—collaborated to create an innovative assessment, intervention, and culinary program centered on dementia.

The first change was a shift in mindset. “One challenge was to get our management team really focused on dining as not just hospitality,” says Klinger.

Among new goals is a concerted effort to prolong the use of utensils rather than resorting to finger food. “I really feel the dignity loss of eating with hands is huge with people,” Klinger says. Supporting this goal involves using prompting techniques, personalized assistance, and a dementia-friendly menu drawn from 5,000 pre-tested, fork-friendly recipes.

The dining environment, too, was enhanced for greater dignity. The wider use of table linens and centerpieces aid understanding. Residents in wheelchairs are transferred to dining chairs. Diners receive warm scented washcloths for their hands before and after all meals. The dining staff was trained to use prompting techniques, to observe changes, to know when to assist, and to focus on residents as their primary responsibility. One outcome has been earlier intervention for residents who need help. If weight loss exceeds three pounds, it kicks off a series of specific interventions supported by clinicians.


Winner: Benchmark Assisted Living
Wellesley, MA Sensory
Dining and Bistro Dining programs

For many Benchmark Assisted Living residents, dining is a big highlight of their day. So why not take that interest and enjoyment to the next level?

That’s what Chef Guy Hemond, vice president of dining services, pondered, and that’s what he did. Hemond made two changes to shake up the dining program. “It was a matter of giving them something a little exciting on a daily basis. I come out of a hotel background, and I think residents deserve it,” he says.

First, he introduced the concept of “Sensory Dining”—i.e., presenting food with a little more spectacle in order to stimulate appetites and enhance the dining experience. A chef wearing her toque might fire up some bananas foster right in the dining room, or the mouth-watering aroma of sizzling apple wood smoked bacon would be allowed to waft down the hallways.

Second, Hemond developed “Bistro Dining” to provide residents with a monthly alternative dining venue, breaking from everyday routine. The community’s common areas, such as libraries, are transformed into, say, a mid-winter “Caribbean Cruise,” or a “Shanghai Noon” Chinese Restaurant.

Both programs have been well accepted. Overall satisfaction scores for food and dining have increased significantly, while residents have been known to reschedule medical and beauty parlor appointments so as not to miss out on special events. Nudging chefs out from the kitchen also has changed their relationship with residents in positive ways.

Hemond’s changes initially were met with a little resistance from dining directors and residents. Soon, however, a friendly rivalry arose between communities for the most elaborate ideas, www. with dining directors snapping pictures of smiling chefs and residents in an effort to one-up each other. “There’s an unspoken competition,” Hemond admits, “but it’s all for the benefit of the residents.”


Winner: Country Meadows Retirement Communities
Hershey, PA
Fitness Walking Trail

What do frail seniors have in common with triathletes? A range of daunting physical challenges to overcome.

According to Kim Eichinger, Country Meadows’ executive director of fitness, the analogy is apt, when considering that frail seniors can benefit from approaching their own physical challenges a bit more like triathletes. “To improve performance in a particular activity or skill, you must train by practicing that activity or skill,” she says.

That’s the basic concept behind Country Meadows Fitness Walking Trail, a portable, flexible indoor fitness course designed to link functional activities to specific exercises that simulate the skills needed to accomplish them. As opposed to a general fitness class, seniors identify specific daily activities that pose a challenge to them—such as getting in and out of a car—and are able to address those challenges in a fitness routine.

For seniors accustomed to the handicap-accessible conveniences and helpful hands available in a senior care setting, the fitness trail challenges them to maintain their physical independence in areas where they are lacking. For example, weaving in and out of a series of cones can help residents maintain their ability to navigate obstacles in crowded public areas.

Residents appreciate this individualized approach to exercise, and its practical, real-world applications. Even residents who normally do not participate in exercise classes have taken to the fitness trail. “They saw this as a challenge they could relate to,” says Eichinger.

The trail is a helpful screening tool that can lead to surprises. “Residents are experiencing an awareness of where their deficits are, and it’s driving them to work more to strengthen in those areas,” Eichinger says. When an Alzheimer’s resident suddenly dribbles a ball down the length of the room, she adds, the staff, too, certainly gets a better understanding of that person’s capabilities.


Winner: Brookdale Senior Living
Milwaukee, WI
Celebrations Program

Research shows that people who feel a sense of purpose, who feel motivated when they get up in the morning, tend to live longer and enjoy a better quality of life. That’s one reason activity programming is so important in senior care communities.

Yet bingo games, birthday parties, and other typical fare can only go so far.

That’s why Brookdale Senior Living created “Celebrations,” a comprehensive initiative involving a 12-month calendar of more than 200 ideas to help communities plan activities. What makes Celebrations unusual is the range and depth of the ideas; the attention paid to enhancing whole-person wellness (what Brookdale calls Optimum Life); and the faithful observance of an overall theme.

The annual theme, created by a task force of associates from across the country, is meant to inspire residents’ curiosity, spirit, and sense of fun.

“Celebrations just brings a completely different twist” to programming, says Charles Richardson, director of lifestyles and life enrichment. “It adds that layer of purposefulness.”

Last year, the theme was “Music of Our Lives.” The Celebrations calendar recommended, for example, adding “moonshine” to the menu during Bluegrass Month, a “Dancing With the Stars” movement activity during Broadway Month, and holding garden activities around “sowing seeds of life” during the month dedicated to inspirational music. All year, the communities also offered a drum circle and a learning experience called “Musicians of Yesterday and Today.”

Celebrations has become the foundation of programming for Brookdale. “It has been ingrained in the actual fabric of the communities,” says Richardson. It also can be fun and motivational for associates. The last time Brookdale unveiled a new annual theme, the number of associates who called in quickly overwhelmed the conference line and required opening a second one. Says Richardson, “If we don’t have our list of suggestions ready, we’ll get 100 e-mails saying, ‘We need this!’”


Winner: The Greens at Cannondale
Wilton, CT
Intergenerational Connections

The Greens at Cannondale has found a creative way to keep assisted living residents connected to the world outside their door—by sharing a love of the arts with local teens.

For three years now, The Greens has partnered with Wilton High School PTA for a competition to design the community’s annual holiday greeting card. The contest is open to high school students who wish to pursue a future in art. The residents are the judges, and the winner receives a $1,000 scholarship. The residents “love the idea of the scholarship program,” says Eleanora Tornatore-Mikesh, executive director. The contest also gives them a sense of ownership, she explains, because “the greeting cards coming from our home are coming from them.”

In a separate endeavor, The Greens partnered with the Trackside Teen Center last June to offer the first annual intergenerational talent show, “Young and Not-So-Young.” Auditions were held, and participants chosen based on talent—“talent that hadn’t been tapped into for years,” says Tornatore-Mikesh. Rehearsals took weeks. Nerves and excitement hit old and young, alike. A local Girl Scout troop built a handicap access ramp for the stage.

On the day of the event, the stage was set cabaret-style, and 14- to 16-year-olds took turns in the spotlight with seniors aged 65 to 101. The audience was treated to singing and dancing, instrumental solos, a 14-year-old pianist and a 101-year-old pianist, and life reminiscences.

The whole experience was intense, Tornatore-Mikesh says, but also well worth it. “We had a huge audience. It was empowering. The kids were very impressed by what old people could still do. The residents, themselves, encouraged the kids that they have talent.”


Winner: The Orchards at Bartley Assisted Living
Jackson, NJ
Monthly Town Meetings

The day-to-day challenges that The Orchards at Bartley Assisted Living faces in ensuring its customers are truly satisfied are not so different from any other senior care provider. But what the New Jersey community did about residents’ concerns offers a reminder that sometimes, little ideas can go a long way to prevent bigger problems.

When reviewing its 2007 customer satisfaction scores, The Orchards realized it needed to improve its performance in the category of “responsiveness of management.” Yet the reasons for the low score were unclear. Knowing that customer satisfaction surveys only provide a general statement about performance, the company thought it had better go back to residents for clarification before trying to fix anything. So the company started holding monthly town meetings led by company CEO Philip Scalo.

The right medicine, of course, was in the inquiring.

“We always have an open door policy but we really thought that this would provide a nice, structured, formal way for residents to communicate what’s on their minds,” says Sandra Uphold, executive director. As the town meetings soon revealed, some of residents’ earliest concerns had less to do with management than with residents’ concerns about each other. For example, some residents were letting laundry languish in the washing machines.

Residents clearly have a greater sense of ownership and satisfaction now that their concerns can be aired—directly to the CEO, no less—and resolved together. “When they see a prospective new resident and/or their family touring, they are eager to tell them how much they love living at The Orchards,” says Uphold.

Not only did “responsiveness of management” scores increase dramatically from 77 percent (“excellent/good”) in 2007 to 100 percent last year, but the survey response rate also shot up, from just 31 percent in 2007 to an enviable 75 percent.


Category: Human Resources


Winner: Brightview Senior Living
Baltimore, MD
Human Resources Risk Management

Human resources laws are the backdrop for literally thousands of interactions that managers have each day with their subordinates. Mastery of these laws ensures a well treated work force and lowers the risk of employee-initiated litigation. Yet, too often, companies assume managers have a better understanding of these laws than they really do.

“Most companies make an assumption that managers have this baseline of information, but most people have not been taught,” says Andrea Griesmar, Brightview’s director of human resources. “It’s one thing for us in the HR department to know these things, but we’re not the ones interacting with associates every day.”

In an effort to “shine as an employer of choice,” Griesmar explains, Brightview recently introduced an intensive training program called Human Resources Risk Management. The program was created specifically for Brightview by an attorney who also is a former HR executive in health care. Topics range from the role of managers as agents of the company, to workplace discrimination, to managing disability issues, to understanding requests for special accommodation protected by law, etc.

Now the company’s nearly 300 managers, from frontline supervisors to executives, have been trained on the ins and outs of HR law. “We were not trying to turn them into attorneys or HR experts—that’s why you have an HR department—but to recognize when they need to get help,” Griesmar says.

For their part, managers have expressed gratitude and even relief for the information. “They were saying things like, ‘Wow, I’ve been a manager in five companies in 20 years and no one ever taught me this,’” Griesmar adds. Since the training became an ongoing part of the company’s leadership curriculum, the phones in the HR department have been “ringing off the hook. Before this, people didn’t know what they didn’t know. Now we have far more proactive inquiries.”


Winner: Brookdale Senior Living
Milwaukee, WI
“The Dollars & Sense Talk Show”

Last year, as the economy turned more and more sour, dining services executives at Brookdale Senior Living started to cut back on nonessential travel. Instead, they searched for a less costly way to stay engaged at the local level at a time when communities needed their support for using resources wisely.

“We were looking for a way to have a regular presence in our communities, face-to-face time with line associates, culinary staff, and executive directors, and at the same time provide some valuable training and advice,” explains Joska Hajdu, senior vice president of dining services.

The dining department’s unique solution was to buy a couple of high-resolution cameras and produce “The Dollars & Sense Talk Show,” an interactive half-hour talk show broadcast live via streaming video each Wednesday afternoon. Each show is divided into six segments, from “Word on the Street” (a lively introductory dialog between panelists about topics such as how the economy is affecting food prices) to Kneading Dough (a chef talks about combining food quality and smart buys) to Hot Dish (a live Q&A with viewers). Associates in the nearly 600 communities can watch the show over the Internet, dial a party line to simply listen, or download the show via podcast. They can call or e-mail with questions.

The show has drawn a loyal audience. About 60-100 callers dial in each week, and another 30-40 callers listen to the recorded version. Hajdu credits the relaxed format and fun panelists—all from Brookdale—for encouraging people to call in. The show tends to draw questions that are foremost on associates’ minds but which likely would not have been asked during a traditional meeting. “This gives them a whole other avenue,” Hajdu says.


Winner: Hoffman SummerWood Community
West Hartford, CT
Waitstaff “Star” Incentive Program

Chronic absences. Tardiness. Internal work assignments being changed without approval. Non-adherence to the uniform policy. Not understanding the value of their work. The main problem with the waitstaff at Hoffman SummerWood assisted living community was that sometimes they acted like a bunch of teenagers.

Which, frankly, most of them were.

“This department is historically staffed with high school aged or young college students coming to us with little training in the workforce,” explains Joan Carney, executive director. “Our customary response to unsatisfactory work performances (disciplinary actions) just didn’t seem to work.”

Finally, supervisors met with the waitstaff to brainstorm ways to turn their individual attitudes and collective performance around, and a new incentive program was born. “You can sometimes get caught up in pointing out what hasn’t been done,” says Carney. “We really wanted them to develop their teamwork and understand how call-outs affect everyone.”

Through the “Star” incentive program, waitstaff earn recognition for performing well. Each time they achieve a higher level of performance, they receive a star on their name badge and a framed announcement of the promotion is publicly displayed. Honors range from one burgundy star (for new hires) to five gold stars (for top performers who have been with the company longest).

The community also redesigned training and competency requirements. The staff is more closely supervised, and new hires now shadow an adult supervisor, rather than other waitstaff, when learning the job. With the earning of each new star comes a small but valued wage increase.

The “Star” program has led to a significant reduction in superfluous call-outs, more efficient customer service, enthusiastic feedback from residents, good work ethics being emulated by new hires, and no voluntary terminations of employment. Compared to the previous eight months, the number of disciplinary actions was reduced by 90 percent.

Winner: Signature Senior Living
Irving, TX
Ambassador Partner Program

Azalea Trails Assisted Living and Memory Care Community opened in Tyler, Texas, a couple years ago with a talented management team and a growing clientele. The only problem was that it tended to lose too many caregivers within the first three months of employment. Despite best efforts to hire and train the right people, “it wasn’t clicking,” says Sharee Cummings, vice president of employee partner relations for Signature Senior Living.

In response, the community’s leadership team gathered some of the community’s most dedicated caregivers—or “employee partners”—to help brainstorm solutions. The employee partners’ guidance, in essence, was to let them do the hiring.

The advice made perfect sense. “They know many of the people coming in. They know their own jobs,” says Cummings. After being saddled with extra work because of high employee turnover, she added, stable employees were eager to help. “They were frustrated, too.”

Out of that initial exchange, a new Ambassador Partner Program was born and quickly spread to other Signature properties. Senior employee partners were selected to undergo special training to help interview, screen, and recommend their future coworkers. Ambassadors also let job candidates shadow them for a day (pre-hire), and conduct orientation, training, and mentoring of new employee partners.

The ambassadors’ professionalism and dedication has been impressive. Cummings credits the new program with cutting staff turnover at Azalea Trails to 6 percent. Employee and customer satisfaction survey scores have improved. For Cummings, the most satisfying result has been its effect on employees in general, many of whom have applied to become senior care partners and/ or ambassadors.


Winner: Sunrise Senior Living
McLean, VA
Gestures of Appreciation

It’s hard to say without sounding corny, but it also happens to be true: Frontline employees are the heart and soul of the senior care business. “Nobody amazes me more,” says Daniel Schwartz, senior vice president of North America Operations for Sunrise Senior Living. “They are the ones embodying the mission. They are doing the hard work.”

Sunrise understands, and its annual team member engagement surveys certainly confirm, that employees need to know they are genuinely appreciated. While team members know where they stand with their immediate colleagues and managers, the Sunrise universe is much larger than that.

“As we’ve gotten bigger, there’s a risk of people getting disconnected to something other than their own community,” Schwartz explains. “It would be nice for them to know that the company— not just their ED—knows and appreciates what they do every day.”

So on four occasions throughout 2008, Sunrise’s corporate team took the opportunity to thank each of the 32,000 members on its North American team with a personalized letter of gratitude from Schwartz, mailed to their home along with a modest gift. The final expression of what Sunrise calls “Gestures of Appreciation” arrived in time for Thanksgiving, along with a $20 bonus intended to help team members buy a turkey or other treat. “As I know many of you give up time with your families during the holidays to serve our residents, I sincerely hope this small gesture of our appreciation will help make your time with your loved ones a little easier, and a little more special,” said the letter.

Many team members sent thank-you notes of their own in return. In the case of Thanksgiving, some described how the small bonus had made a real difference for their family for that holiday.


Category: Sales & Marketing


Winner: Emeritus Senior Living
Seattle, WA
Branding Campaign

Tinkering with a company’s brand identity can be tricky. There’s always the prospect of losing sight of what people most appreciate about you, of experiencing push-back from the field, or of changes being misunderstood as a marketing gimmick.

Yet establishing a consistent brand is critical, especially for a large company such as Emeritus Senior Living that has gone through a recent major acquisition. “We had people who were part of the same town that didn’t even realize they were part of the same company,” explains Jayne Sallerson, senior vice president of marketing.

For its own brand campaign, Emeritus understood that branding requires a partnership between HR and marketing, because a company’s culture and employee buy-in are key to its external reputation. So rather than handing the job to a branding consultant, Emeritus turned to its employees. The company essentially asked them what they wanted customers to think of Emeritus. Among the responses, two words consistently came up: family and commitment. “That’s how the whole brand promise kind of evolved,” says Sallerson. “Our promise is that ‘our family is committed to yours.’”

Emeritus developed seven “family values” to help all employees live by the promise. It took steps to incorporate the brand in all employee and customer touch points, such as marketing, training, employee recognition programs, consistent use of the Emeritus name by communities, etc.

Jordan Scardigno, a senior executive director who came to Emeritus through the merger, praises the company for improving benefits, actively and repeatedly soliciting ideas for improvement, and having the CEO recognize individual employees who draw compliments on the company’s comment line. “It shows me how committed they are to the employees,” Scardigno says.

“I think it’s neat they started with the employees,” adds Scardigno. “Once they received feedback, they really gave us all the tools to help us embrace, ‘Our family is committed to yours.’”


Winner: Five Star Senior Living
Newton, MA

Five Star Senior Living Signature Recipes

Five Star Senior Living has transformed itself into a “cookie cutter” operation—with deliciously satisfying results.

What started two years ago as a bright idea for every Five Star community to develop its own signature bakery item to use for gifts and marketing giveaways has evolved into a 67-page cookbook featuring more than 140 carefully tested recipes from most of the company’s 200 communities nationwide, as well as descriptions of each participating property. For a company whose many acquisitions have led to a very diverse portfolio, the cookbook serves to showcase the unique “flavor” of each individual community, while also promoting the Five Star brand.

The cookbook took two years to develop and was released last December, in time for use as a holiday gift and marketing aid. Since then, each community has found its own way to run with it. A Colorado community sold books as a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association, which drew press attention. A Texas community paired the cookbook with cookie-baking supplies in holiday gift baskets for important referral sources. A Nebraska community sent the book as a valentine to each hospital discharge planner, along with a heart-shaped tin of chocolate truffles they’d made from one of the recipes.

The cookbook has proved a hit. Communities report winning attention from customers and referral sources, one palate at a time. One sales director in Texas reported delivering a cookbook along with a dozen of “Rosie’s Chocolate Decadence” cookies to one of her hot leads, and walking away with a waiting list check in her pocket.

“We’ve even had chef signings marketed to lead sources,” says Mary Ellen Greenfield, the food and dining director who championed the project. “The cookbook itself is very easy to use, the recipes are clear. I have to say there’s still more to come with this cookbook.”


Winner: Maristone Senior Living
Nashville, TN
“On Modern Age”

Maristone Senior Living’s first community won’t open until this fall, but the young company has gotten a solid head start in establishing its brand as a caring provider in middle Tennessee, thanks to a conscious effort to share the spotlight.

For the past year, Maristone CEO Karen Shayne has educated seniors still living at home about issues of concern to them through a monthly column in a senior newspaper and a weekly TV spot aired on WSMV-Channel 4 (NBC). Both the column and the news spot are called “On Modern Age,” and cover topics such as home health care, power-of-attorney documents, the importance of keeping a “medical information sheet” for emergencies, and so on. When the Alzheimer’s Association held its annual legislative day at the state capitol, Shayne also interviewed a state senator on camera in support of Silver Alert legislation.

Neither opportunity is a paid advertorial. Shayne performs a needed service, while also taking the opportunity to refer seniors to the Maristone Web site for links and more information on the topics she has covered. “We’re really, really about community involvement,” she says.

Shayne landed the opportunity at Channel 4 by turning down an invitation to advertise. She instead proposed producing a short segment on senior-related issues, and the station took her up on the idea. It helped that Shayne had prior experience in entertainment and is comfortable in front of a camera, and that the station was seeking ways to build an audience among seniors. Soon the one-time gig turned into a longer partnership, and recently moved to the 6 o’clock news.

Once the time slot changed to 6 o’clock, Maristone’s phone started ringing “like crazy,” says Shayne, and so the company’s back-door marketing has started to pay off. “People feel like you genuinely care, and they call you,” says Shayne. “We haven’t even opened but we got our first two reservations from ‘On Modern Age.’”


Category: Operations & Technology


Winner: Castle Country Assisted Living
Castle Rock, CO
Strategic Planning Process

Once upon a time, Castle Country Assisted Living was struggling in the Colorado market that it served. Two years later, the small nonprofit operator went from a zero cash reserve to having $500,000 in the bank. Census rose from 76 percent in 2006 to 100 percent last summer, with a waiting list for all three communities. Most importantly, its leaders, employees, and residents now share a clear vision of what Castle is all about, and of where it is headed—thanks to a map measuring four by eight feet, and the creative strategic planning process that brought it about.

Unlike some strategy sessions, in which hours of facilitated brainstorming can lead to a document written after the fact and stored in a file, Castle relied on an outside-the-box facilitator to draw out the board of directors’ vision for the company and inscribe it on the wall. The board’s vision literally took shape before members’ eyes in a way that has kept the elements of their business plan clear, focused, and sorted into their proper places. Elements range from practical to-do lists for improving operations and visibility, to inspirational drawings and motivational phrases that get at the more intangible goals of defining culture.

“This was not your everyday boring strategic planning,” says Barbara Dice, executive director. “You aren’t looking at a Power- Point presentation. You aren’t writing notes. You can be totally engaged. You’re watching your ideas come alive.”

Once the board members’ ideas were thus posted, the mural was laminated to serve double-duty as a historical reference and as an inspiration for ongoing planning, work development, and accountability. “Eighty percent of the world’s population are visual learners, which is what makes this visual process so effective,” Dice adds. To keep it relevant, the facilitators returned each quarter to visually document the company’s progress for all to see.


Winner: Country Meadows Retirement Communities
Hershey, PA
Distance learning/computer training

These days, there are computer programs to address every major business need, from number crunching to marketing to tracking resident care. So many jobs are made easier by specialized software. Except if your job is to teach everyone else how to use the programs.

The technology trainers at Country Meadows Retirement Communities used to have to drive from one community to the next in order to train staff. Alternatively, associates would have to travel to a central location for a group class. Either way involved considerable hotel and mileage expenses, not to mention having to pull associates away from their core responsibilities.

Thanks to Deborah Walmer, director of technology training, and Steve Roberts, director of information services, that is no longer the case. Walmer and Roberts helped Country Meadows implement an e-learning platform, WebEx. Now trainers can lead a virtual class with students at multiple locations from their office laptop. Each trainee can interact with the trainer as she walks them through the steps of using an application. The application appears simultaneously on all participants’ screens.

Walmer has developed a series of 30- to 40-minute classes that is available to co-workers right where they work, at a time that suits their schedule. All classes are saved and archived for future reference at any time.

This is a good idea for senior living companies, which typically experience frequent employee turnover. “One of the least glamorous and most necessary things is repetitively training people,” says Ted Janeczek, CFO. “This is so flexible, people can engage themselves in it when they’re free.”

Dave Kraft, director of technology integration, said the software cost only a few thousand dollars and has paid for itself already. “It’s a perfect education solution for tight budgetary times like now. It’s an instant investment in saving money,” he says.


Winner: Pathway Senior Living
Des Plaines, IL
Pathway University

Initially, Pathway Senior Living’s training programs were home grown. “We had a lot of good material, but found that it became dated as soon as we printed the binders,” says Maria Oliva, chief people officer.

There were other challenges, too, familiar to many providers: bulky binders and human errors that made tracking compliance onerous; the expense of having night shift employees attend daytime sessions; inconsistencies from one trainer to the next; and difficulty coordinating schedules for all involved.

After much research, the Midwestern provider of 10 affordable assisted living communities turned to an outside e-learning provider whose turnkey comprehensive system featured userfriendly technology, 24/7 flexibility, and senior care-specific content. But what makes Pathway an example for other mid-size providers without the corporate infrastructure to create such a comprehensive program is how the company made the product its own.

Pathway University set up the program by customizing the online training platform to its needs and philosophy, and adding the best of its own training programs. Now executive directors can track compliance with a touch of a button during state inspections, and add community-specific content to Pathway University as needs arise. Compliance across all communities has now reached nearly 100 percent.

“To go from simply using our system to developing and implementing their own comprehensive training program and philosophy is outstanding and shows that they ‘get it’,” says Sara Mawyer, service delivery manager for Silverchair Learning Systems. “Training is not just about maintaining regulatory compliance, although that is important; training builds morale, improves service, and shows that an organization is dedicated to its employees and residents.”

For their part, staff members especially appreciate the program’s flexibility, including the ability to get caught up on their training from the comfort of their homes.


Winner: Sunrise Senior Living
McLean, VA
Sunrise University: Integrated Learning System

For years, Sunrise Senior Living’s signature training program not only steeped countless new hires in the specifics of their job, but also grounded them in the company’s resident-centered philosophy and mission.

Yet the time had come to rethink the content and how it was being presented. “The content, while fresh and cutting edge at first, had gotten tired,” says Daniel Schwartz, senior vice president of North America Operations. For example, training materials were heavily reliant on a written format, with too much information presented up front and all at once for easy absorption.

Sunrise has since taken advantage of current technology to overhaul training. The main goal was to combine different types of media to appeal to all different types of learners, and to make it available in a timely way so that new hires would be able to get into the substance of their jobs as soon as possible. Or as Schwartz explains: “How do we make sure they know what they’re doing before they even touch a resident, and then how do we verify that they’ve learned it?”

Sunrise University’s Integrated Learning System offers the convenience and ease of e-learning. But technology is viewed as a component of an overall holistic approach to ongoing professional development. Sunrise linked its training system to the payroll system, to enable automatic prompts for training and professional development throughout every team member’s career, as well as easy tracking of how well they did. Certain components of care-giving and Sunrise’s mission are still viewed as better handled in person.

Orientation training compliance has risen from 25 percent to 90 percent since the inception of the program. The system also seems to have contributed to a 40 percent decrease in direct care staff turnover, and initial orientation and training hours have been reduced by about 50 percent.

Whitney Redding is a contributing writer to Assisted Living Executive. Reach her at wredding@alfa.org.


Whos Who

Contact information for members in this article.

Kris Brock, klbrock@bpmsenior.com

Andrea Catizone, acatizone@benchmarkquality.com

Joan Carney, jcarney@hoffmansummerwoods.com

Sharee Cummings, scummings@signatureseniorliving.com

Barbara Dice, barbaradice@countrycastleassistedliving.org

Kim Eichinger, keichinger@countrymeadows.com

Mary Ellen Greenfield, mgreenfield@5sqc.com

Andrea Griesmar, agriesmar@sheltergrp.com

Joska Hajdu, jhajdu@brookdaleliving.com

Guy Hemond, ghemond@benchmarkliving.com

Juliet Holt Klinger, jholt@brookdaleliving.com

Dave Kraft, dkraft@countrymeadows.com

Maria Oliva, moliva@pathways.com

Charles Richardson, crichardson@brookdaleliving.com

Jayne Sallerson, jsallerson@emeritus.com

Jordan Scardigno, bonita-ed@emeritus.com

Daniel Schwartz, daniel.schwartz@sunriseseniorliving.com

Karen Shayne, karen@maristoneseniorliving.com

Eleanora Tornatore-Mikesh, eleanora@transconbuilders.com

Sandra Uphold, suphold@bartleyhealthcare.com

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