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OH, by the Way...

October 1, 2007
by GARY TETZ
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Remember the great TV detective Columbo, who always popped out with the killer question just before he went out the door, prefaced by “Oh, by the way”? Well, in this new bimonthly feature, Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management columnist Gary Tetz (“Funny You Should Ask”) talks with long-term care leaders about anything that pops into his mind. He's as surprised as you are that they'll speak to him, and apologizes in advance for whatever inanity he might blurt out in the pressure of the moment.

This Month's Victim:

William L. (Larry) Minnix, Jr. President and Chief Executive Officer American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA)
I hadn't spoken to Larry in quite some time, and felt awful about it. I finally tracked him down on his cell phone somewhere in our nation's capital. He was clearly delighted to hear from me.

As you know, AAHSA represents more than 5,700 not-for-profit providers of aging services, and Larry has led the organization since 2001. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Emory University and is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He's known for his down-home Southern charm, sometimes startling candor, biblical analogies, and endless stories.

Larry, it's been a long time. How much have you and the rest of the AAHSA team missed me?

(With barely discernable sarcasm) You know, Gary, one of the problems I face is grief among our staff over how long it's been since they had contact with you. The crying, the temper tantrums—they never end. So it is so good of you to reconnect.

I think your media person is a little nervous about this.

She was really scared. I told her, “Do you want me to tell him the one about…” and she was like, “Please don't.”

Nothing could frighten a public relations professional more than Larry Minnix starting a sentence with, “I probably shouldn't say this, but….”

(Laughs) You're exactly right. And she's heard that a few times.

According to my life journal, the last time we spoke was in October 2003, when you said, “The times are great and I'm happier than the day I walked in about being head of this association.” Were you lying?

No. I have the greatest job in the world, and the opportunity to improve things has never been better.

Back then, public perception of nursing homes was low, Medicare reimbursement was going over a cliff, regulators and lawsuits were out of control, and a staffing crisis was raging. Aren't you glad that's all behind you?

(Laughs) I'll tell you what's changed. Many providers are taking quality improvement seriously, and policymakers are finally facing the fact that we have a broken system and we're all capable of fixing it.

You told me, “We've got resolvable problems, and I'm beginning to see the tide swing in our direction.” Now, that sounds more like President Bush talking about Baghdad.

(Laughs) Maybe it was a joint statement from both of us.

You're known for your biblical analogies. What Bible character do you most closely identify with these days?

It would probably be a combination of Micah, who was a bit of a prophetic figure, and the worker in the vineyard.

I expected you to choose Noah. After all, you're preaching to a lot of deaf ears about a rising flood of boomers.

Or I could have said Jonah because we've [the LTC profession] been swallowed up and spit out.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was about three, I told my mama I wanted to be a cowboy and asked her to mail me to Texas. She resisted doing that, although I'm sure there are days she wished she had.

Why a cowboy?

I don't know. Maybe because when I was just a little bitty kid I listened a lot to Hank Williams. In fact, I remember getting kicked out of Sunday school. The teacher asked us kids which song we liked to sing and everybody else said “Jesus Loves Me” and so forth. But when she came around to me, I said, “Hey, Good Lookin'.” So she made me sit out in the hall.

Besides Hank, who were your childhood heroes?

Well, there was Lash LaRue, a cowboy western movie figure, and I loved Mickey Mantle. But I guess the all-time most lovable character in my life, beyond my mama and daddy, was my Uncle Clarence. He worked at the mill and lived way out in the country. He took me fishing, taught me dirty jokes, and sang “The Wabash Cannonball” to me.

What have you learned since then?

The older I get and the wiser I think I am, the less people seem to listen to me and the more I realize I need to know.

You've been known to say around the office, “We've got serious work. It better be fun.” How do you keep your sense of humor?

I work around fun people who know how to laugh and cry, and I firmly believe the ability to do both is one of the secrets to a healthy life. If I ever write a book about our work [in long-term care], it will be about those times—it usually has something to do with sensitive bodily functions—when you don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's not laughing at people, it's laughing with them. It's deciding that you're going to laugh about a situation because if you don't, you might not stop crying.

I remember a man who still had his mental faculties but was losing control of his bodily functions. One of our nurses was interviewing him about his daily habits and asked, “What time do you wake up in the morning, and when do you normally go to the bathroom?” He said, “Nurse, I wake up promptly at 7:00 a.m., and I have a bowel movement promptly at 6:30.” The two of them broke up laughing. He was able to maintain his sense of humor in the midst of what was no doubt an undignified stage in his life.

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