Quality of Life – for Whom?

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Benjamin Surmi, Director of People and Culture, Koelsch Communities

When my brothers were playing basketball in the street, I would find myself sitting at the feet of elders in my neighborhood – listening to fascinating stories of faraway places and times. Volunteering in local assisted living communities, I became both excited and angry. Excited as I found I belonged in these intergenerational micro-neighborhoods where authentic friendships blossomed. Angry as I saw the greatest generation wasting away in loneliness, purposelessness, and disconnection from the wider community.

In college, I heard about a lecture at the University of Southern California’s gerontology school. I did not know who the speaker was but felt I should drive into Los Angeles for the talk. It was Dr. Bill Thomas and his lecture, What are Old People for? changed my life. Pursing graduate education in gerontology and working in home care, lifelong learning centers, memory care, and among rural elders, my focus always remained the same – thriving with purpose and connection at any age and ability.


Interview on Purpose

Yet, even though I’ve invested my career in seeking the best tools to improve quality of life, I’ve become convinced that all of my person-centered, relationship-centered, culture-change goals are only nice ideas without an unrelenting passionate pursuit of quality of life for workers. Nothing we seek to accomplish for elders can happen without empowered, confident, healthy, and inspired workers. Promising innovations are unsustainable and only temporary without this most fundamental ingredient.

While I would love to write an article announcing fresh ways to once-and-for-all solve this issue for our field, I can’t because it’s on ongoing challenge that each generation must answer in their own way. Instead, I’m going to share three areas I am focusing on in 2020 in my role of influencing 2100 employees caring for over 1500 elders across eight states.


#1 – Humanitude

There’s a lot of hopeful innovation right now. However, there’s nothing I’m more excited about than Humanitude finally coming to the US. So many things have begun to feel like gimmicks and flashy new toys in comparison to the wellbeing outcomes our team members are achieving with the care protocols from France-based Humanitude.

In short, Humanitude does not depend on designing the perfect environment or crafting the most progressive daily program in order for nurses and care partners to make a decisive impact. The protocols work in messy, chaotic, imperfect settings. And, they can be applied immediately – without a college education or a deeply reflective, self-aware skillset. These researchers take theoretical relationship-centered constructs and turn them into learnable skills that become habit quickly.

In our pilots, we’ve watched people stand again after two years of inability, communicating with a spouse again, willingly accepting showers after refusing for months, sleeping in their bed again talking when everyone thought they couldn’t, and so much more.

Instead of asking more of already overwhelmed care partners, Humanitude has been a gift of empowerment, confidence, and inspiration.

If there were only one thing that I could do as a gerontologist in my lifetime, it would be to be part of bringing Humanitude to the USA as a sustainable practice.


Care partners sharing success after 4 days of practicing Humanitude.


#2 – Neuroscience with Dr. John Medina

Articles online and in print proliferate with conflicting and dubious prescriptions for keeping our brain healthy. In designing wellness initiatives for our 1500+ elders and educating our care partners, I need evidence-based research that is actionable.

Dr. John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington, School of Medicine, in Seattle. He has a rare ability to help non-physicians navigate the complex, nuanced science of brain health and arrive at practical actions based on confident evidence.

His work regarding reminiscing, friendships, gratitude, sleep, and teaching children as elders are particular interesting to me personally. The outcomes are surprising. The outlining of specific how-to’s from the research give direction. It is this body of work I am relying on for future evidence-based program development.


Dr. John Medina at Google Talks.


#3 – 21st Century Training

Senior living is infamous for absurdly poor training experiences and information systems. Hours of videos, infuriatingly boring online modules, haphazard in-services, policies in outdated binders, and important guidance buried in email chains.

But, I keep pinching myself, isn’t this 2020?

We have so much rich progress in human-centered design in other industries. Why not apply these principles to our industry? Why continue doing what we know does not make a measurable difference but only checks off compliance and liability boxes?

In 2020, training for care partners must be:

  • Learner-Driven
  • Hands-on or Experiential
  • Multiple Micro Sessions vs. Half-Day or Full-Day
  • Inspiring, Imaginative, Immediately Relevant
  • Translated into the Language Learners Understand

Our systems for storing knowledge and finding what’s needed must be:

  • Easy to read or watch in plain language
  • Easy to find whenever needed and on any device
  • Facilitates peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing
  • Guides workers to just-in-time updated knowledge

A few tools at work for other industries that have promise for our industry include:

If you are like me and are seeking to reimagine how care partners and other team members learn, let’s connect. My e-mail is bms@koelschsenior.com.  I believe that collaboration is the best way to design and the only way to see sustainable improvement in empowering us all to thrive as we age.  If you agree, won’t you share your thoughts and comments below with other Pioneers.

3 comments on “Quality of Life – for Whom?

  1. Benjamin Surmi on

    Hi Melody,

    Yes, agreed. Empathy is key in culture change.

    As the oft-quoted saying reminds us, “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

    Individuals living in a community, family members, friends, paid team members, volunteers, regulators, owners, and stockholders (sometimes retirees hoping their stocks will help them pay for care themselves) are all intertwined and connected in just one assisted living community. Each is surviving, coping, or moving forward at the same time.

    Building compassion and empathy and respect into our strategies is the foundation.

    Your question is powerful as everyone in this relationship can ask the same question.

    I appreciate the work of Pam Brandon with Age-u-Cate and the work of Carrie Shaw with Embodied Labs to create highly-interactive tools for embedding empathy within teams through experiential learning.

    And, I appreciate the work of Sherry DuPuis and Pia Kontos with the University of Toronto showing that the quality of the friendship between care partner and a person residing in a healthcare setting is one of the most powerful forces for positive outcomes.

    Thank you again for your sharing.

  2. Joanne Rader on

    Thanks Benjamin for this very interesting article. I too am very impressed with the potential of Humanitude to make life better not only for people living with dementia, but also for those who care for them, regardless of the setting. Although I have had the privilege of attending several programs on Humanitude and taken the four day hands on training offered at a Koelsch care setting, there is so much more to learn. I will be attending the sessions on Humanitude at the Pioneer Network conference in August. I encourage others to do so also. It is a very unique and practical approach that is in practice in Europe and Japan. As a nurse, I have worked in the field of dementia care for over 40 years, written books, articles and done research. I was involved in creating the “Bathing Without a Battle” books and videos as on outgrowth of our research. I am no novice to the field of dementia care and I realize I have a lot to learn! Humanitude is one of the most exciting things I have seen and experienced in a long time . Let’s get the message out there!

  3. Melody Taylor Stark on

    #qualityoflifeismedicallynecessary #embraceelderhood Thank you SO much for this article. I print information like this and give it to the administrator at the skilled nursing facility where my husband and several friends reside. While they do better than most SNFs in the area, they are sill very focused on the medical model and many nurses are nurses or CNAs because it’s what’s culturally acceptable in their families – not necessarily what they’d choose as a career. That is a lose-lose for them and those they interact with.

    Sadly, initiatives like this are ignored by corporate run facilities and non-profits who may have the ability to make changes are “comfortable” in the run of the mill. Both not willing to think either inside or outside the parameters of what has sadly become acceptable in society.

    I often pose to people – and the adolescent volunteers at the SNF – “What would you hope this to be like if/when you are here?” Hopefully, it helps them to think – and put thoughts into action.

    Thank you, again.

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