When Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern United States in 2005, it didn’t spare the Gulfport, MS, campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH).

The storm surge destroyed the first floor of the retirement community, which primarily serves retired military personnel. The damage was so significant that the building’s occupants were evacuated to AFRH’s Washington, DC, campus. 

They remained there until the rebuilding effort was completed in 2010.

By the time I visited AFRH-Gulfport in 2011, a multi-year strategic planning process had convinced the organization’s leaders that they needed to incorporate the principles of culture change into their corporate culture.

AFRH leaders asked me to help educate senior managers about what it means to deliver person-centered services and supports, day in and day out. 

As a long-time proponent of culture change, I was glad to help.

Culture Change: More than Architecture

The need to rebuild the damaged Gulfport campus helped accelerate AFRH’s shift to person-centered care. In Katrina’s aftermath, the organization began to think seriously about how the architecture of its new building could help AFRH embrace a new kind of service delivery.

When AFRH-Gulfport reopened in 2010, its new care settings featured a modified neighborhood design that could facilitate a gradual shift to person-centered care. 

Since then, the organization has erected a new building, featuring the same neighborhood-like design, on its historic Washington, DC, campus.

Last month I had the opportunity to meet again with AFRH’s senior management in Washington. During that visit, I was pleased to learn that AFRH’s culture change journey involved more than just architecture.

Instead, AFRH has been working hard to apply person-centered principles to the care delivered on both its campuses. In Washington, for example, the organization is:

  • Training staff members to incorporate person-centered principles into their daily interactions with residents.
  • Revamping its dining services so they are more flexible and are better at addressing resident preferences.
  • Delivering supportive services to residents who live independently on campus so they can preserve that independence.

Asking the Right Question

What pleased me most during my second visit to AFRH was the question organization leaders asked me to address:

What more can we do to bring person-centered care to the next level?

That’s a question every provider of aging services should be asking itself.

I recommend 2 additional steps that all providers should take once they’ve established person-centered care as a priority.

1. Create a person-centered workplace.

Culture change isn’t just for residents. Aging services organizations must also apply person-centered principles to their interactions with the people who work for them.

This is particularly important for frontline workers, who are largely responsible for delivering person-centered care to residents.

Think about this for a minute. How can our workers treat residents with respect if they don’t receive the same respect from their employer?

In a person-centered workplace:

  • Managers take time to know their workers as individuals. They understand the pressures that workers face in their daily lives. They develop policies to support their workers so those workers can better support residents.
  • Workers feel empowered to collaborate with managers in setting organizational priorities, solving problems when they arise, and taking responsibility for implementing change.
  • Workers receive a living wage. They have opportunities for meaningful education and training. They have access to career-building opportunities. As a result, they’re more likely to view their work as a vocation, not just a job. 

2. Apply culture change principles to independent living.

Much of the culture change literature focuses on nursing homes and assisted living communities. These are certainly important settings in which to deliver person-centered care. 

But we can’t lose sight of the ways in which culture change could improve the lives of residents who live independently on our campuses.

It’s tempting to view these residents as “tenants” who want to be left alone. But an organizational focus on person-centeredness must reach all residents.

How? As a first step, you might offer residents the opportunity to honestly explore how they really want to live during their later years. Then you might offer to help residents fulfill those aspirations. 

That might lead to programs that give residents the tools they need to take a strength-based approach to meeting personal goals.

No resident would be forced to participate in such programs, of course. But I suspect many residents would appreciate the opportunity to improve their physical and mental wellbeing, pursue lifelong learning, take part in meaningful employment or volunteer activities, or gain better access to health care providers who could help them manage chronic conditions and avoid health complications.

The Key to Person-Centered Care

Creating person-centered care settings, workplaces and housing communities isn’t an exact science and it doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all book of rules. That’s the whole point.

What it does require is your willingness to treat residents, clients and workers as individuals, to listen to their preferences and aspirations, and to think creatively about how you can work with them to create environments that make life worth living.

Finally, person-centeredness isn’t something that you implement once and forget about. It evolves. It takes time and requires constant attention. You never actually arrive at the finish line.

But, along the way, the culture change process allows all of us to grow into the people and the organizations we were meant to be. And, believe me, that makes it all worthwhile.