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Infusing life with purpose: LTC tips from Vetter Senior Living

A “facility” is a proper term for a hospital, a clinic, or a surgical center. But people in long-term care and senior living would never use that word for their workplaces. They prefer the word “community.”

That’s because their workplaces aren’t just a site for clinical care. For residents, these buildings are the place they call home. And the most dedicated of long-term-care workers believe it’s their job to make their communities feel like home, every single day.

Achieving that has never been easy. It’s even harder now, in the midst of a public-health crisis. Some organizations, however, have fought through the adversity to create environments where residents continue to thrive.

It’s these outstanding organizations that NRC Health celebrates with its 2020 Customer- and Employee-Approved Awards.

Award winners were selected for their percentile scores on customer- and workforce-satisfaction surveys taken in 2019. Winning organizations had to receive a high proportion of positive responses to two specific survey items: “What is your recommendation of this community to others?” and “What is your recommendation of this community as a place to work?”

Vetter Senior Living, headquartered in Nebraska, has consistently achieved these benchmarks for years. Aside from NRC Health’s recognition, Vetter has earned many accolades, including Nebraska’s first-ever AHCA Gold Quality Award for its Norfolk-based community.

But how did Vetter manage these accomplishments, even in the face of a pandemic?

In this article, Vetter President Glenn Van Ekeren lends a little insight.

Serving residents

COVID-19 has totally upended most healthcare operations. All the same, Van Ekeren believes that the fundamental purpose of long-term care has not changed. He offers two pieces of advice for serving residents, both of which were instrumental for Vetter’s receipt of the Customer-Approved Award.

  1. Don’t neglect emotions

For maintaining care quality, Van Ekeren has a simple proscription: “It’s always been about understanding what resident expectations are, and exceeding those expectations.”

For Vetter, NRC Health’s survey data is a cornerstone of this broader strategy. They rely on the solution to reveal what residents need from their caregivers.

COVID-19, of course, made this understanding all the more important.

Safeguarding resident safety was always Vetter’s first priority. But Van Ekeren knew that, pandemic or no, residents have important emotional needs as well.

“It goes back to Psych 101, Maslow’s hierarchy,” Van Ekeren said. “We have the food and safety figured out. What about those higher needs—for love, belonging, and purpose? We need to look out for those, too.”

  1. Make life feel special

As nationwide social-distancing protocols were put in place, one of the guiding questions from Vetter’s Real-time surveys was about life-enrichment, asking residents about the meaningfulness of their daily activities.

With this data in hand, the Vetter team pursued an answer to the question, “How do we maximize a sense of daily purpose for our residents, and how do we make them feel cared for?”

Vetter’s facilities deployed a flurry of strategies to help residents stay engaged with their lives.

At one community, residents joined a touring bell choir. Another community encouraged a resident to sew masks for frontline healthcare workers. Several of them created makeshift “zoo tours,” bringing animals like wooly cows, horses, and piglets in for a visit.

These tactics worked wonders for Vetter’s residents. They beat back the sense of isolation that came from social distancing, and infused residents’ lives with meaning.

“It’s our mission: ‘Treat others as the most important person in your life,’” Van Ekeren explains. “It’s not just how we extend people’s lives, but how we put purpose and meaning into their lives—that’s our focus, every single day.”

Serving staff

“No matter what your plan is, it’s the people who are always going to make it go the right way or the wrong way,” Van Ekeren says. And as recipients of the Employee-Approved Award, Van Ekeren and his team would know.

It’s this foundational insight that animates Vetter’s philosophy for its staff.

Here’s how Vetter managed to keep its own people happy, healthy, and engaged—even during the worst public-health crisis in a century.

  1. Make staff feel valued

“Since mid-March, I’ve heard horror stories from many other communities—staff members just up and walking out the door,” Van Ekeren says. “Abandoning the residents and leaving it all behind them.”

These horror stories didn’t happen at Vetter. By and large, its employees have remained loyal to the system. Why?

Van Ekeren argues that it’s because Vetter attends carefully to what staff members need.

To that end, the organization has conducted extensive surveys to gauge, community by community, the current state of employee morale. These surveys also signaled important actions Vetter’s leaders could take to ensure that their employees continued to feel appreciated.

Early on in the pandemic, for example, Vetter sent cash gifts to every one of its employees. Individual community leaders also conducted “COVID-19 Experiences,” coming up with one new way to express gratitude for care staff, every day, for 19 days in a row. Even a simple gesture, like sending employees packages of cookies, made a difference.

These were all important countermeasures against extraordinary stress.

“Fear is a part of our daily lives now,” Van Ekeren says. “We’re all fearful of that positive test. How do we move past the fear and live and work with a sense of anticipation, positivity, and hope?”

In these gestures, Vetter found a solution.

  1. Build the culture

Finally, Vetter stresses the importance of the intangibles.

“Get the culture right, and everything falls into place,” Van Ekeren says. “Get the culture wrong, and you’re not going to see those hard results.”

Van Ekeren believes a large part of Vetter’s success is a relentless focus on the organization’s mission. Every day during the pandemic, Vetter’s leaders have reinforced the values that Vetter stands for—in newsletters, in morning announcements, in every company communication.

“Our philosophy is to make where we work a place we love to be. As I see it, that means we in leadership have to be a voice of hope and compassion,” Van Ekeren says. “If I feel like my coworkers care about me, then we have a bond. And that’s what makes a culture thrive in times like this.”

Deliberately nourishing that culture—one of positivity, dignity, and caring—is what knits Vetter’s team together. It’s why the organization functions as more than just the sum of its parts.

And it’s likely why Vetter has won such full-throated approval from its employees.

The vision matters

With customary humility, Van Ekeren marvels at what Vetter has accomplished. “We must have done something right,” he says, “because our people really seem to believe in what we do.”

Vetter is an inspiring example of the power of a vision to bring people together. They’ve more than earned their accolades, and we at NRC Health are certain that we’ll all continue to learn from Vetter for years to come.

Congratulations to Vetter, and to all the winners of this year’s Senior Living Awards!