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In case you haven't heard, attracting and retaining senior living workers is a huge challenge for the industry. This was true before the pandemic hit and it's even more true now.

"It almost feels like a UFO traveled over our country and abducted half the workforce," Garden Spot Communities CEO Steve Lindsey told Senior Housing News recently. Which may be true given all the recent UFO sightings in the U.S.

Anyway, senior living is struggling to find not only direct care workers, but also food service workers, who are often teenagers that could be working at McDonald's or Wendy's instead.

Low Wages Make it Hard

A big part of the problem is low wages. According to a report from national research and consulting organization PHI, 48% of residential care aides are considered low-income workers. Their median hourly wage in 2018 was only $12.07.

As Lindsey points out, many senior living providers are struggling with the payment systems. Medicaid doesn't cover half the costs of providing care to people and those who are paying for all their care are living on fixed incomes. "The higher the wages go up, the more challenging it is to offer a product to mid-market people who are not very wealthy," he told Senior Living News.

But here's the thing.

Lindsey and others believe that senior living has an "opportunity to tie in the meaning and value of serving an older generation." This is the idea of intrinsic motivation, which is is is connected to finding meaning and purpose and a drive to take on challenges. Its opposite, extrinsic motivation, is based on rewards such as compensation, advancement, and recognition.

Using Design to Tap Into Intrinsic Motivation

My guess is that many senior living workers are intrinsically motivated. And there are many ways that providers use the design of the physical environment to tap into workers' intrinsic motivators of satisfaction, impact, enjoyment, and meaning.

Maybe it's a break room for nurses and nurse aids, like a zen den or tranquility room. Or maybe its a fun space where the teenage food service workers can chill before or after their shifts.

In those spaces, give them access to nature and beauty. Offer healthy food and snack options.

Creating An Intergenerational Connection

Another solution Lindsey offers to bring more meaning to the work is to create an intergenerational connection between staff and residents and a culture that promotes the idea of "one group of people living and working and sharing life together."

He doesn't specifically mention design, but does talk about some urban housing models his organization is thinking about that are not age-restricted. I'm excited by these new possibilities, but also think more traditional senior living communities can use its spaces (or design new ones) to create intergenerational connections.

For example, how about providing activity spaces, such as a gym or game room, that both staff and residents can use?

The senior living community my 87-year old father lives in recently started engaging residents to play the corn hole lawn game in an outdoor space between two wings of its assisted living building. Wouldn't it be great if staff were invited to play too?

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Sara Marberry_013-Retouched-New copy

What's my story? I'm a healthcare and senior living design knowledge expert who writes and speaks frequently about trends and issues affecting these two industries. I'm also a strategic marketing consultant and content creator, working with companies and organizations who want to improve the quality of healthcare and senior living through the design of the physical environment. You can reach me at .

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