Transforming the elder experience

By / Posted on July 10th, 2019

Resident and caregiver at Jewish Home Assisted Living in River Vale, NJ (Photo: Jewish Home Family)

Following is a repost of a blog by Carol Silver Elliott as it appeared in the Times of Israel on July 8.

What if we viewed elders as individuals with value and purpose? What if we stopped, as a society, seeing older adults as “them,” as people who are “less than” and who have little to contribute? How would that change our perception of older adults and how would that change our view of our own lives as we all, inevitably, age?

That’s the underlying premise of The Green House Project, an organization that’s been in existence for more than 15 years and whose goal is to transform care of older adults. Green House was founded by Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatrician, who realized early in his career that the care we provide for elders can be radically different and radically improved.

Dr. Thomas began the Eden Alternative, bringing plants and animals into long term care settings, based on a theory that having something to look after and care for would have a positive effect on the residents. It did. But that was not the full answer. Dr. Thomas developed the concept for Green House and today there are hundreds of Green House homes across the United States and internationally.

Green House homes are founded on three core values, real home, meaningful life and empowered staff. Each of these play a role in making the most critical element work—creating a non-institutional, normal environment for elders, an environment that is not “homelike,” rather, it is home.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a five day educator program provided by Green House. It’s a program called “core training” and it is something that every staff person who works in our organization will receive. The program was held in a new Green House development in Arkansas so we had the gift of both spending the week in an actual home that has not yet opened and visiting elders who live in the homes on that campus that have already opened.

While there was a lot of learning during that week (and a nearly 700 page teacher guide that we will use as we teach it), what really resonated with me is the understanding that this philosophy is not an “add on” or a “tweak” to what we do and what we provide. It is full immersion, it is changing the way we interact, think and approach elders.

To really create normal life for those who live with us, we must always remember to focus on strengths rather than disabilities. When we focus on what someone can do rather than what they can no longer do, it changes the equation dramatically. And that applies in every area from activities to care to dining and so much more. Giving people the opportunity to make choices, express themselves and enabling independence as much as possible, that’s one key elements that creates real home.

This is not an “add water and stir” approach, it’s not easy and it will be a major change in behavior and mindset for many of us. But talking with the elders who live in Green House homes, as well as the staff who work with them, one thing is clear. The results are worth the effort. The elders who live in these settings and can articulate it, told us about quality of life.  They told us about feeling comfortable and at home, about the staff who felt like extended family, about the choices they were able to make about every aspect of their lives, about the family members who came to visit and felt as welcome as if they were still visiting them at home in the community. The staff echoed similar sentiments, the satisfaction of deeply knowing the elders with whom they work, the joy of being able to see and treat people as individuals and not room numbers or diagnoses, the ability to create “normal” every day.  And those elders who can no longer use language as they once could, shared their feedback through the peace in their faces and the comfort they clearly found in the soothing environments of their home.

Maya Angelou wrote “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.” Those words have great meaning as we begin this transformational journey. They have great meaning as we think about the care we provide to elders and the possibilities. We can do better as caregivers, as families and as a society to remember that our elders are not “them,” rather that they are still an important part of “us.”

Carol Silver Elliott is president and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs New Jersey’s Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as president and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is chair-elect of LeadingAge and past chair of the Association of Jewish Aging Services.

Here is a link to the original blog post: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/transforming-the-experience/