Get Busy Living

Next week I will be giving a leadership talk at the national Green House Project conference.  The Green House Project is a movement to fundamentally change the way we provide care for older adults, moving from a setting that feels more medical and “institutional” to one that feels, looks and is “real home,” where elders can live a life that is resident-directed and as meaningful as possible.

Implementing Green House is a major undertaking and one that we will be deeply into throughout 2019 and beyond.  Participating in the national conference helps us to learn from our colleagues and benchmark against others who are already practicing this philosophy of care in their organizations.

My talk next week follows that of a gentleman who has early onset Alzheimer’s.  He was diagnosed a number of years ago and is only 57 years old now.  I had a chance to read the talk he’ll be presenting and he’s themed it around a quote he loves from his favorite movie, Shawshank Redemption.  In it, one of the characters gives this sage piece of advice, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”  This gentleman has taken those words to heart and throughout the years since his diagnosis has made “get busy living” his focus and his mantra.

As I thought about “getting busy living” from a leadership perspective, it seemed to me that this is the core of what all of us do (or should do) who work in elder services.  I would contend that keeping people safe is vital, providing the care and services they need is also critical but that the core of working with elders is to help them and to enable them to “get busy living.”

This is also, I think, the hardest thing to achieve.  It is easy to see people as diagnoses or room numbers.  It is easy to see people as tasks that must be completed and care that must be delivered.  Our entire long-term care industry is built on this kind of tradition, that we are offering help to those who need it, that we are reaching out to those who are “less than” in an effort to safeguard their wellbeing.  That’s not the wrong thing to do but I would argue that it isn’t enough.

When we fail to see people as whole because disease or disability has limited them, when we treat someone as a patient and not a person, we fail both the elders and ourselves.  There is tremendous richness to be gained through interactions with our elders, to enabling choice and to providing a fullness of life and experience.  We see this in many of the programs that we do, a perfect example of which is OMA (Opening Minds through Art).  In the OMA program, individuals with a diagnosis of dementia have the opportunity to use creative expression to make choices, have control over some aspect of their lives and reach outside themselves.  I have seen people whose voluntary movements were limited to swallowing yet, with a little support, the ability to create and express themselves, creating art that came from a place deep inside, a place where their essence could still be reached.  These lessons and this philosophy must apply to everything we do and every interaction that we have.

Focusing on abilities rather than disabilities, focusing on resident choices rather than purely staff direction, acknowledging wisdom rather than deficits, these are all ways in which we are revolutionizing the aging services industry and the entire aging process.  It’s a big undertaking but clearly the right thing to do and we all need to remember to “get busy living” and help others to do the same.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ'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 a member of the boards of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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