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Technology can build community among residents' families, staff

September 5, 2014
by Sharon Risser, BSN
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Providers find new ways to increase family involvement
Click on the image to see a photo gallery.

Message to Lori Yoder:

“Today I met Herb in the hall, and he said, ‘Hi there, trouble,’ and I responded with ‘I thought we were buddies?’ His response was, ‘We are; that’s why we can talk like this to each other.’ I love that guy.”

—Audrey Christman, Supervisor, Housekeeping/Laundry Services, Waterford Crossing, Goshen, Ind.

Message to Waterford Crossing:

“This is what I like about WC. A friendly, joking atmosphere that is perfect for my dad, who loves to rib people. You just have to take everything he says with a grain of salt.”

—Lori Yoder (daughter of Herb), Glendale, Ariz.

The above exchange, conducted via a web-based platform called Smile, is a wonderful expression of my organization’s motto: “Celebrating and Supporting Life’s Journey.”

Too often in long-term care, we only communicate with families when a problem occurs:

  • “Mom fell.”
  • “Dad’s condition is declining.”
  • “Mom had an issue with her meds.”

Rarely does a staffer pick up the phone and say, “I had such a fun time with your mom today. She won the prize for the best outfit for Crazy Dress-Up Day.”

Using modern communications technology, my team at Waterford Crossing in Goshen, Ind., can instantly celebrate the fulfilling parts of our residents’ lives with their families through words, photos, audio and video.

Supplementing existing efforts

Before rolling out use of the cloud-based platform this year, we already had worked hard on communicating. We have a weekly newsletter called The Grapevine, which is available to all the residents and families via email or our website. It conveys community news and lists all upcoming activities. Our executive director, Bryan Mierau, also produces The Infogram, a monthly publication that relays the big picture of where our organization is headed and the major events on the horizon. It is sent with our billing statements. Our staff puts much effort into outreach to family members whenever a need or opportunity arises.

Those are good examples of traditional community-wide communications, but we wanted to establish a channel for individual outreach.

“I actually thought we were communicating as well as we could with family members and residents, but Smile has taken it to a whole other level, where staff, families and residents can much more spontaneously interact,” Mierau says. “Staff have cameras and smartphones with them more often, so now when something good happens, they can easily and spontaneously capture and share it. It builds on our positive culture.”

Building community

The web platform provides Waterford Crossing with cloud-based technology through which we can send and receive text messages and emails from any computer or mobile device. Staff can share text, photos, video and audio files about special events using fully secure data encryption that is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and excludes personal health information.

Frankly, I had never seen anything like it. It is something like a family Facebook page but is centered around one person or couple.

Smile facilitates the planning and scheduling of activities tailored to residents’ individualized needs and assists in creating groups of residents based on shared interests. Families can use the portal to enter information on residents’ life stories and prior interests to help caregivers learn more about them as individuals.

“Living as far away as I do, I'm very grateful for this new way of communicating,” says Yoder, whose father resides at Waterford Crossing. “I get to see pictures of Dad and [stepmother] Anna, and I get notes from staff members who interact with them. I like seeing what activities they are participating in and what other options are available to them. I also like telling stories about my dad through the personal profile; this gives the staff something to talk and laugh about with my dad. It has been a lot of fun.”

Other communications platforms have been developed for senior living communities, and some of Smile’s functionality is similar to the existing tools. We like the flexibility and utility Smile offers for all users—staff members, caregivers and family members—and its analytics and reporting functions, which allow us to track levels of engagement by resident and activity as well as how frequently we are in communication with which families.

Planning an effective launch

It’s nice to have a good app, but success comes with good implementation of that app.

Carol Srun, Waterford's community life coordinator, trained senior staff members and nurses to use the technology, then rolled it out at an all-staff meeting. “We wanted everyone to contribute, and [so we] created a form to fill out when they reported on something,” she says. “We created a saying: ‘If you smiled and the resident smiled, then you probably had a Smile moment.’ ”

It helps that the tool is easy to learn and use, Srun says. “It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to train new staff members, and they are sending messages to families the same day.”