Community Living: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Don't Ask Don't Tell

Community Living: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Why your residents won’t tell you the truth about your dining program.

I have two ways of knowing what your residents think about your dining: 1) I spend a lot of time privately interviewing IL and AL residents across the U.S., and 2) I spend a lot of time staying with my mother at her assisted living community.

In my work helping communities develop their brand, I’ve heard the executive team say many times, “Our food is great.” But later in the course of research, I will find that it’s really not great.

I don’t think the executives are trying to cover anything up. I believe they have good intentions. But rather, I think this happens because when they go to their dining room, the staff pulls out all the stops for them. After all, they’re the boss! So they get a completely different view of the program. Also, they’re not eating in the dining room three times a day. How often do they take a meal? Once a day? Once a week? It’s different when you’re dining there day in, day out, for three meals a day.

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you already know that I often set up my office for a week at a time at my mom’s assisted living community so I can visit her and work during the day. I stay in her beautiful, spacious apartment in a very quality, nonprofit Life Plan community.

Because my mom is now using a walker and frankly doesn’t care to go out that much, most often, we dine three meals a day at her community.

One day when I was not visiting her, she called me and said, “Hey, do you have any brochures for your business? I want to show them to my friends and give them to the kitchen.” I procrastinated and didn’t send them. A few weeks later, R-R-RING! It’s my mom. “Hey, did you send those brochures? I really need them.”

She and her friends had been quietly talking about the problems with their dining room, and my mom thought perhaps the kitchen might hire The Culinary Coach to help.

The next time I went to see her and was helping to sort the mail, I found the brochures I sent, and both copies were still in the envelope. I asked my mom what happened. “I don’t want to make waves,” she told me, “so I didn’t give them to the kitchen.”

It was Christmastime, and that night we dined with two other residents. The dining room was beautifully decorated with candlelight and wine was served. A lovely setting. As the dry prime rib and highly overcooked green beans arrived, I asked the ladies what they thought of dinner. They rolled their eyes. “Well, it’s better than some days.”

Later at the elevator I asked them what they thought of the food, and they looked side-to-side and whispered, “We don’t talk about it because it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s not going to change.”

Here are the reasons your residents won’t tell you what they really think about your dining program.

  1. They’re afraid of being seen as “ungrateful.”
  2. They are afraid of retribution. I’m serious. They believe that if they complain they may somehow get worse care.
  3. They’re afraid the staff won’t like them anymore.
  4. They’ve lost hope. They feel it won’t matter anyway because it won’t change.
  5. They don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.

So here’s what you can (and should) do on a regular basis. Offer an anonymous online form that people can fill out to express their feelings about your dining program. Give them the option to put their name on the form if they want—but don’t make it a required field.

Anonymous feedback is the only way you will know objectively what your residents think and feel about what is happening in your dining program.

However, encourage positive feedback too. At The Culinary Coach, we offer the Kudos Program, a positive feedback loop that gives residents the option to provide “constructive criticism.” When the feedback is solicited with a positive spin, residents are much more likely to participate.

Going forward, communicate back to residents the steps you are taking to enhance and enrich their dining experiences. We can move away from simplistic words like “good” or “bad” or “improve” or “correct.” Use words that are descriptive and rich, for example: “We heard you! This month we are focusing on the variety of vegetables we’re serving because we want you to have a healthy and enriched dining experience.”

Cheers to honesty!