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Aging Well in Independent Living

By Kim AcostaFebruary 12, 2021
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Three out of four adults age 50 and older want to continue living in their homes as they age, according to a 2018 AARP survey. But being an active part of a community motivates seniors to engage in habits that lead to longer, healthier lives, says Lilly Donohue, CEO of Holiday Retirement, a Florida-based independent living provider with hundreds of communities in 43 states. And she’s on a mission to prove it.

What are your goals for Holiday?

Donohue: My daughter is applying for colleges and my son is graduating from college this year. And I always think how when the kids get in, they wear the shirt of their college, and they say: ‘I got in!’ My aspiration is that our customers put on the Holiday shirt when they retire.

There are so many reasons to want to be in independent living. If you move into a community like Holiday, you’re more likely to live independently longer than an average person staying in their own home. And this can be measured in lots of ways. We can look at less help with activities of daily living (ADLs), or fewer medications and ER visits. We’ll start to really put some data behind it. I will bet everything I have that those numbers will prove out to be really strong because being part of something, giving back in a community environment is absolutely important.

What does it mean to age well? What’s your advice for seniors and families?

Donohue: Three key things: taking your meds, nutrition, and lack of loneliness. People will always talk about how taking your meds, keeping fit, and eating well are the most important things. But if you don’t have motivation, you won’t do those things.

It’s the connection to other people that gives you the motivation to take your meds and take care of yourself. It’s about helping people understand the motivation element as the driver to physical health and wellness.

What are families and residents’ favorite things about Holiday Retirement communities?

Donohue: I consistently hear that it comes down to our people. I think families ultimately realize that we’re small enough at Holiday to know everyone’s names. It feels really homey. We have a saying at Holiday: We’re real people serving real people.

Over the years, we implemented a Welcome Home program. It tracks the first 90 days a resident spends at our community. And that really helps them know how the services work at Holiday, and how to find their friends or their social environment.

Holiday’s Welcome Home program allows staff to get to know residents.

Speaking of your employees, how do you attract and retain great staff at Holiday?

Donohue: We were one of the first senior living companies to be named a Great Place to Work. I think the most important thing is recognition, and then some autonomy to make decisions in the resident’s best interest. You also have to be competitive in pay, and I think we are at Holiday.

But even more important is growth within the categories. We retain employees by identifying paths for them to grow. We can help a housekeeper become a housekeeper manager. We can have a housekeeper manager become a resident enrichment coordinator. A resident enrichment coordinator becomes a sales leader, and later the general manager. Well-cared-for for employees really bring the space alive. I see them sitting and talking to customers about their day, or the chef will remember someone’s favorite meal or write a heartfelt message if they’re delivering your meal to your room.

What questions should families ask when touring senior living communities?

Donohue: When it’s time to choose a community, pick a set of questions that are important to you and make sure you ask multiple employees or staff members in the facility you’re visiting. I always ask how the community celebrates employees who do a good job. I also want to know about the principles that everyone believes in, and how long staff members have been around.

Also, tell me what the community did about the worst customer experience or when someone was dissatisfied with something. You learn a lot in how a community processes service failures.

I tell staff members all the time when we’re training them: You can’t possibly train or have policies and procedures for every situation. When something goes wrong, take ownership. Put the customer first and it will always work itself out. The second thing we always tell our staff members to consider is, ‘If this were a family member, what would you do?’

How has Holiday had to adapt during the pandemic?

Donohue: We’re continuously adapting. We understand that we don’t know all the answers, so collaboration is critically important. We frankly became stronger as a community of communities.

First and foremost, you’ve got to trust in the protocols and data — that’s how we decide whether to close or open our communities. Every step of the way, our goal is the well-being of our residents and our employees.

You also have to focus on better communication during these times to keep residents and their family members informed. We stay up-to-date on surveys, so we know how to pivot.

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And then I think the last piece is learning how to make connections during COVID-19 — to really be creative. We get to see some pretty fun things happening at communities, whether it’s a resident coordinator who’s fully costumed and in entertainer mode or drive-through birthday parties.

Holiday staff and residents use creativity to stay safe during the pandemic.

How has Holiday embraced technology and innovation?

Donohue: I think we look at it in two ways. The first way is as it relates to our staff. We’re exploring how we can use technology to make the job easier. If you can reduce some of the administrative tasks, they can spend more time with the residents. For example, if a staff member sees a crack in the ceiling, they can make that note on their phone app and it automatically goes to the maintenance tech.

We also look at the customer side of the platform to let them give us feedback. If you can track your customers’ wants, likes, and dislikes, you can better customize programming in a community. It excites me. Our customers — who have a lifetime of wisdom learned, a lifetime of experiences — should drive the way they want to live at a Holiday community.

We’ve started “Tech Tuesdays” in our communities, simply as a way to start introducing the idea to residents. We have programming about social media and health platforms, like how to check your blood pressure. All of those things are ways to get them set up once we’re ready to launch our resident platform, if you will. We’re super excited about it. It’s already launched in some of our communities. We’ve got two more pilots going and then the plan is to fully launch in 2021.


AARP. “2018 Home and Community Preferences: A National Survey of Adults Age 18-Plus.” https://www.aarp.org/research/topics/community/info-2018/2018-home-community-preference.html#:~:text=Folks%20Just%20Want%20to%20Age,see%20that%20happening%20for%20them.

Kim Acosta

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