Assisted Living Brings Meaning to Hospitality – Provider

Residents of the Paul Spring Community in Northern Virginia gathered recently to enjoy the day’s lunch prepared by Executive Master Chef Norbert Roesch. Waiters in black bowties and crisp white shirts moved efficiently between the tables, expertly serving a creamy seafood soup, a choice of Cobb, Caesar, or Mediterranean salad, and entrées that included baked salmon, turmeric-spiced cauliflower, and BBQ chicken sandwiches.

For dinner, the residents could look forward to a selection of beef tenderloin, shrimp and clam sauté, and seared garlic lamb chops, among other delights. Those who preferred to make their own meals, meanwhile, could join a weekly outing to the nearby Wegmans grocery store, where staff drivers would carry their bags to the waiting club van and then back to the countertops of their trim apartment kitchens. First-rate hospitality? Yes! But gourmet dining and valet shopping excursions are not the only things that distinguish the Paul Spring Community, an independent living, assisted living, and memory care facility in Fairfax County, Va.

“What makes us different? It’s not necessarily a dining room, or the food on the table, or the bus that we take residents out on,” says Ray Tate, executive director of the 145-apartment facility that is part of Virginia-based Retirement Unlimited (RUI). Paul Spring is one of 62 other assisted living facilities registered in Fairfax County alone. “It’s us,” he answers. “We, the people, are the ones who make this community different. It has to start with us.”

In 2017, RUI renovated Paul Spring with the addition of a memory care wing and enhanced amenities such as a wellness program, concierge services, and an ambassador program to acclimate and introduce residents into the community. Tate emphasizes that all such amenities rest on a strong foundation of personal hospitality, such as courtesy, empathy, attentiveness, and friendliness.

“Our values are all centered around providing the best hospitality possible,” he says. “It’s how we treat the residents. It’s how we offer them the service they deserve.”

Hospitality: Service and Smiles

Communities across the country seek to balance the two concepts of hospitality—amenities and personal—as they aim to attract and serve a growing wave of seniors looking for the right facility. The sheer number of people entering the assisted living market in the coming years will require a variety of hospitality offerings to meet the demand, many say.

It’s clear which variety of hospitality is most important to Robert Van Dyk, president and chief executive officer of Van Dyk Health Care, which operates facilities throughout New Jersey. Gourmet dining, spa-like buildings, and limousine rides to doctors’ visits are elements of hospitality that fall more in the realm of marketing, he contends.

“Hospitality is not ribeye versus chopped meat, or whether you’re using limos or calling Uber. It’s not Egyptian cotton sheets versus plain. I consider all of those marketing,” Van Dyk says. 

“To me hospitality is the people that you employ. It really has more to do with being friendly, generous, and entertaining of residents, visitors, and strangers. The hospitality side is how welcoming do you make people feel? That’s what hospitality is.”

Staff at Van Dyk learn ways to treat and engage visitors, guests, and residents. “It’s always, ‘smile, good morning, how are you?’” Van Dyk notes of one key message imparted. “If someone looks a little lost, it’s, ‘Is there something I can do to help you? Are you looking for someone? Is there anything you need?’ It’s the front desk trying to be aware of where everyone is.”

Van Dyk acknowledges that knowing the whereabouts of 122 residents at any given moment can be a challenge. But the staff have a solution.

All wear earbuds that let the front desk reach out discretely with queries. This is particularly important when a family member comes for a visit: “‘We have Mr. Jones here. Could someone tell me where his mom is right now?’” Van Dyk says of a typical example. “Knowing someone’s name. We’re trying to create a very happy, warm, enjoyable experience in someone’s new home.”

Pledge to Hospitality

Others codify their commitment to personal service. At Vetter Senior Living, which operates facilities throughout Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, and Wyoming, all team members must sign the Vetter Way Hospitality Pledge (see sidebar). The pledge includes commitments to empathy, common courtesies, timeliness, eye contact, and always offering a can-do attitude.

Shari Owen, talent development coordinator at Vetter, says this pledge is infused throughout the company’s mission, vision, and values.

“We live it every day,” she says. “It’s in our general orientation. Our team members go through a three-day orientation prior to even stepping foot on the floor. We want to make sure the expectations are laid out very clearly. Because we know we retain our talent when expectations are laid out from the get-go. The first presentation they hear is our Vetter Way Pledge.”

Paul Spring’s Tate concurs. When hiring employees and during monthly staff meetings, Tate’s team continually reinforces the community’s core values around hospitality.

“We really do emphasize the need to treat someone the way you want to be treated,” he says of the training. “Sympathy, empathy, it all goes a long way. Our residents plan to age in place, and, therefore, over time they won’t be as strong as they once were. So being able to have that empathy and see them where they are in life is so important.”

Beth Kolnok, a spokesperson for RUI, a Fralin and Waldron family-owned senior living community management company, explains that hospitality traits in an individual can be expanded, but can’t necessarily be taught. Paul Spring looks for employees with the right motivation and right personality, including a willingness to take ownership of the facility.

“When you’re walking down the hallway and see a tissue on the ground, simply pick it up no matter what official title you hold,” Kolnok notes of the attitude that is shared across the team. “Having pride in ownership of your community, that’s what will lead to hospitality. Ensuring the right people are in the right places starts during the recruitment process. We want to make sure they’re the right fit with the right personality from the beginning.”

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Authentic Culture of Hospitality Starts with Top Management

Industry observers agree on the need to ensure that personal hospitality always trumps trendy amenities.

Having a culture of hospitality is especially important as people become more frail or unsure of their future, which many folks may be approaching in these communities, says Denver Severt, PhD, associate professor in the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida (UCF). A culture of hospitality can be discerned by whether one feels welcomed or not, he adds.

“It must start with the top management and trickle down from management to employees to residents,” Severt says. “It must be a culture that is authentic.”

Capturing and marketing that culture will become a competitive advantage as society faces a larger number of people living longer with fewer children to care for them.

“There is a wave of greying that has these communities forecast to grow tremendously across the next few years,” Severt says.

“This will require creative options for many to determine what type of care is provided, from home health care to a lifetime care community. The hospitality initiative is closely linked to quality of life and is essentially the right thing to do in any culture.”

But how widespread the culture of hospitality is remains an open question.

As former chairman of both the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living, Van Dyk recalls how he used to talk about better hospitality training at national meetings. He argued that communities shouldn’t be afraid to spend extra time in helping develop these qualities among employees, especially those who may not have been exposed to the best hospitality. “We weren’t going to see improved care and outcomes if we didn’t invest in our staff,” he would tell his peers.

But the response was either, “You’re right Bob, I’m going to go back and work with my team,” or others said there was no way they could invest in that kind of training, he says.

Hospitality Amenities: Sealing the Deal

But others contend there is a business case to be made for promoting and touting hospitality, personal or otherwise, especially as the United States faces a rapidly aging population. UCF’s Severt notes that hospitality creates a culture that is more likely to attract people who will later recommend others to come to a facility. 


This point is echoed by Melissa Batchelor-Murphy, PhD, RN-BC, FNP-BC, FGSA, FAAN, associate professor at The George Washington University (GWU) School of Nursing and director of its Center for Aging, Health, and Humanities. 

Facilities should focus first and foremost on providing quality care. But she acknowledges that the latest, snazzy hospitality amenities “tend to be easier to market,” especially to adult children who may feel guilty for not being able to care for an elderly parent.

“They do that to make them feel better,” Batchelor-Murphy says of the pitch to amenities. “It’s such an emotional moment that you’re even considering placing your parent in a residence, or that you’re at the point where the care exceeds the demands of what the family can do. These amenities provide comfort to these decisions.”

Recent hospitality trends that Batchelor-Murphy has seen include greater options in dining, such as buffet-style and family-style meals, and the introduction of technology and online programs that allow residents to interact with family members.

Once inside, the question looms: Are they happy there?

“There’s that balance of wanting to make sure you have an environment that is pleasing and inviting from a marketing point of view,” Van Dyk says. “But you can never, never, never overlook the care you provide, and the care you provide goes right back to the staff.”

Ice Cream Helps Break the Ice

Still, no one says that fine amenities are a bad thing. Many traditional hospitality features have intrinsic value that help enrich the lives of residents and families alike.

Take Vetter’s soft-serve ice cream station, which has been a signature feature in each community for three decades. The cool treat offered a unique opportunity at one of Vetter’s facilities located near a high school, says Karl Bieber, public relations coordinator for the company.

“Kids were coming in after school to get the free ice cream, and the administrator noticed they were slipping in to get ice cream and leaving,” Bieber recalls. “The administrator told the students, ‘I don’t have a problem with you coming here and visiting. But for you to get the free ice cream, you have to spend a couple of minutes and visit with the residents,’” he says of the interaction.

The suggestion took off. 

“Residents would start to gather near the ice cream area knowing that during the school year they’d probably have a few kids come in for ice cream,” Bieber says. “Even for them to come in and say hello, and tell them how their day was, that makes a difference.”

Ice cream also serves a useful purpose for younger family members. Adult children can tell their little ones that they’re going to have ice cream with grandma.

“It’s just a positive association,” Bieber says. “It may sound simple, but it’s hospitality, and it brings a level of comfort to people who come through our doors. It takes their mind off of medical conditions and gives them something to talk about.”

The same concept applies to the new coffee bistros that Vetter is installing in facilities. The coffee bistros are open to the public and have drawn in community members from local junior colleges and elsewhere. “It’s another element of hospitality for the residents who come to live there and anyone who comes through the door,” Bieber says.

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Back to School: RUI University

While many hospitality features, such as ice cream stations and coffee bistros, have been in place for years, others are new to the scene.

One is the RUI University at Paul Spring and other RUI facilities in Virginia. The lifelong learning program has operated since 2017 and offers a plethora of courses that are open to both residents and the outside community. Paul Spring has built its own classroom for the courses, and RUI University partners with area colleges, universities, museums, and other institutions to bring in professors who teach the semester-based series of classes.

“Our program combines learning and entertainment over several uniquely formatted classes,” says RUI’s Kolnok. “It’s a great opportunity for friends, families, and visitors to not only expand their knowledge on topics of interest but also get a taste of the community and what we have to offer.”

The RUI University 2019 fall semester featured nearly 30 courses, with titles such as Cross-Country Cuisine, Claude Monet: Architect of the Impressionist Movement, the Four Wives of Hemingway, Why Did Pearl Harbor Happen?, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Dressing the Past: Fashion Throughout History, Music and the Brain, and How to Kick the Sugar Habit. 

The classes are augmented by field trips to the local Smithsonian museums and other D.C.-area institutions. RUI University complements Paul Spring’s chock-full calendar of other enrichment activities, including live music, poetry readings, nature walks, fruit and cheese socials, karaoke, movie and popcorn nights, and daily devotionals.

RUI President Doris-Ellie Sullivan notes that RUI’s overall vision aims to provide a lifestyle that the residents have earned and deserve.

“From our team greeting you in our staple blue uniform to the fine dining culinary experience to our sophisticated décor with a local flare,” she says. “Providing a memorable experience is of the utmost importance and is a companywide initiative we work to provide each and every day.”

Trying New Things

A facility’s hospitality features can ebb and flow. It’s important to be willing to change with the times. Such is the case with a gift shop that Van Dyk installed back in 2001. “I thought that was pretty cool and looked neat,” he recalls of the initial installation. “I had some fun things in there, costume jewelry, toiletries. Over time, fewer and fewer people were using the gift shop. Children were bringing what they needed.”

Staying modern, Van Dyk is now working with Amazon to create a personalized online shopping platform where families and residents can purchase things they might use regularly. Families also can post product reviews to help inform fellow residents. And that former gift shop? It’s set to become “Bob’s 24-hour diner,” complete with period 1950s and ‘60s style black-and-white tile floors and vinyl booths.

Differences by Geography: Always Seek Fun and Enrichment

Capturing a sense of youthful fun is something that runs through Vetter Senior Living facilities.

The organization’s Springfield, Mo., location features a men’s night out that usually involves a restaurant the men chose, along with entertainment such as playing cards or going to the Eagle’s Club for an event. “It isn’t a big ruckus time,” says Bieber. “But it’s one thing we’ve found that resonates to make it a unique experience for the group of people in that building,” he says.

Similarly, the Vetter facility outside of Omaha, Neb., organizes regular fishing trips. “The residents are more from a rural background, and we’ll take them fishing with a group we have a cooperative agreement with on a large pontoon boat to go fishing for a day,” says. The facility in Alliance, Neb., meanwhile, took some of its residents to the local swimming pool. “They hadn’t been in a pool in decades,” Bieber says. “And they got them in there, some who had been dependent on a wheelchair.”

Geographic differences in hospitality can cause some challenges, says GWU’s Batchelor-Murphy. 

Most institutions still don’t cater to the individual, she notes, especially around food. Homey dishes can be very different depending on where you live in the country. “If you grew up in the North and get put in a nursing home in the South, it’s like, ‘why is everything fried here?’”

The differences can be even starker for someone who is particularly old and may have a cognitive impairment. “They’re like, ‘I don’t even know what that food is,’ because it doesn’t look like what they had when they were home,” she says.

Differences by Demographics: Care Should Always Prevail

Administrators agree that the level and quality of hospitality amenities will differ, depending on the demographics and affluence of the residents and their families.

But Van Dyk emphasizes there is no reason for there ever to be a difference in true hospitality, which is care, friendliness, and helpfulness.

“There should never be a reason that, well off or not, that hospitality can’t prevail in an organization,” he says as a bottom line. “When we talk about spas and expensive things—all the glitz that attracts people, because someplace doesn’t have it—that doesn’t mean it’s not a great place to be. Just because someone has all of that stuff, doesn’t mean that’s the place you want to be.”

Paul Spring’s Tate notes that providing good hospitality centers on listening to the residents and learning what they’ve done and what they like to do. “Regardless of what the demographics are, or regardless of the region you’re in, if you’re not listening to your community, it’s not going to be a happy or successful community.”

Putting this into practice, the staff at Paul Spring gather oral histories of each resident. These are shared with the entire staff, from administrators and life-enrichment staff to housekeepers and maintenance workers. “The entire community is listening to our residents,” Tate says.

RUI’s Kolnok adds, “It’s not about the building, it’s about the people inside the building.”

Hospitality is Not Trendy

Bieber of Vetter Senior Living notes that ice cream and coffee bars are features in the facilities. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a culture. “It’s the heart and soul of the building,” he says.

“I have interviewed family members and our residents about why they chose our facility. And a lot of times they talk about touring several facilities, some that are closer to their house, and some buildings were newer,” he says. “But we had engaging employees. And that was what people responded to. They said people actually looked at them and smiled. They thought those were simple things that we make a mandatory part of working for us.”

Tate explains it’s all about providing a home. Some assisted living facilities have tried to recreate a resort or a hotel-style setup. “But you can only stay in a resort for so long,” he says. “You want a home. That’s why I’m so passionate about what we do here. We provide a home.” ■

Neal Learner is a writer and musician living in Alexandria, Va. He can be reached at learnermusic@hotmail.com.