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Healthcare Connection: Change Maker - How Innovative Thinking Kept Families Connected During COVID

By Alliant Specialty

Covid-19 presented a set of unique challenges for our Senior Living Communities including loneliness and isolation, interruption of daily routines, and the disconnection from family members. Lorraine Lewis, Alliant Senior Living Solutions, speaks with Alan Brown, CEO, Methodist Retirement Communities, on how they met the challenge of navigating the pandemic with innovative solutions that both protected residents and kept them connected to friends and family.

Intro (00:00):
Welcome to the Alliant specialty podcast with today's host Lorraine Lewis.

Lorraine Lewis (00:07):
Good morning, everybody. This is Lorraine Lewis with Alliant Senior Living Solutions. As we are looking forward to national assisted living weeks, September 12th through the 18th, I thought it would be fun to have a little interview with my friend, Alan Brown, who has the privilege of becoming a brand new CEO right before a pandemic. And I thought he might like to talk to us about what that was like. So, Alan, if you would, I don't think very many CEOs get to embark on their new journey two months before a pandemic starts. Can you share with us a little bit about what that might have been like?

Alan Brown (00:44):
Well, it was an interesting time to make a job change for sure. As I began my work with Methodist Retirement Communities in April of 2020, of course, things started heating up with COVID in March and getting into the shutdowns by the end of the month. So, make a transition where you come in and really can't visit campuses to start. It was a difficult time and then really navigating the policies and procedures we had to put in place to keep people safe. When there wasn't a lot of good information available back then, or we didn't know what information to trust or to follow, dealing with regulatory guidelines and then really dealing with what would come to be with our residents of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom in isolation, which were equally as problematic as COVID itself. But the good news is it was a great time to join the organization because I got to see how our team performed under the worst situations and did outstanding work, in the last, over a year now, our employees have just been phenomenal. Our residents have been phenomenal, and we've made the best out of a difficult situation.

Lorraine Lewis (01:51):
The last time I had the privilege of being in your boardroom, you shared with me what I thought were some creative ways to just try to support your residents, to see family members. Can you share a little bit about some of the things that you did that were, I think somewhat creative and perhaps unconventional, but probably really made a difference in helping people stay connected with their loved ones?

Alan Brown (02:14):
Early on, I challenged our team to abide by the rules that were placed on us, but also come up with ways that we could still have interaction with family and computers or FaceTime is okay, but that's not real engagement. Although many days that was the best we could do. So, I challenged our teams to think about how we could do that. Early on we created what we called visitation booths, which were plexiglass little rooms where family members could come in from an exterior door. And then we would have their family member on the other side. So, they were separated by Plexiglass, but at least there was face-to-face contact and interaction. And you feel like you're seeing somebody, one of our campuses created what they called a hugging wall, where it was some big screen that had gloves made into it, going both ways.

Alan Brown (03:05):
So, residents and family members could come in and hug each other. And we had a way to clean that between uses. So, that was very positive. We had a family member who works for NASA and is an engineer and he helped us come up with the idea of a visitation trailer, which it was outside. So, we took an enclosed trailer, that had two entrances, two air filtration systems, and air conditioners where we could take residents on one end and then family members on the other end. So, they could have a private space to visit in these trailers. And we actually won an Innovation of a Year award with Leading Age Texas for that. So again, just challenging our teams to come up with new ways to solve the problem and deal with the loneliness and isolation. So, I'm grateful for our teams. They did a phenomenal job.

Lorraine Lewis (03:54):
I mean, those ideas are so creative, and I love it when you talk about combating what you call that plague of loneliness, hopelessness, and boredom. Unpack that a little bit further for me because I mean, I think that's such a beautiful word picture honestly of what people struggle with. And I know you guys have known that your heart is to really address that for your residents.

Alan Brown (04:16):
Well, a lot of times, as you age, your world gets smaller and you may see family less, there may be health challenges. You may lose connections with your church, with your friends, or your outliving your friends, maybe you can't drive any longer. And many times that leads to loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. And we want our campuses to be places of engagement. We are now a part of the Eden Alternative, which addresses these things with continuity, with engagement, with kids, plants, just opportunities for meaningful engagement, whatever residents enjoyed doing before they moved to our campus. There's no reason to give that up. And it's not all staff-led. It's resident-led as well, but there's no reason why as folks age, they can't send you to learn and grow as people. And the same thing for our staff as well, giving them opportunities to grow as people. So, that's what we're focused on with Methodist Retirement Communities as we go forward just to be places of engagement and meaningful life.

Lorraine Lewis (05:14):
Yeah. As you've trying to engage with folks in that way, is that something, I mean, I know MRC has always done a really good job as I think of care for residents and trying to be innovative. Have you seen any new or different results? Is this a new initiative or would you say this was already part of the DNA of what you guys were doing?

Alan Brown (05:32):
I think it was already a part of the DNA of what we're doing, but now we're formally recognizing it and saying, this is what we want to focus on. We want to have opportunities for personal growth, not for residents, but for staff. And I could give you an example that our Mirador campus started a few years ago, a resident-led scholarship program for employees so they could continue their education. It's totally run by residents and they raise funds through estate sales and all kinds of different fundraisers built a scholarship fund. In the last six years have awarded $65,000 in scholarships to our employees. The employees write a letter, justifying their need and what their dreams are in life. The residents review those and make decisions. And when I saw that it, I said, we've got to replicate that it's a win-win thing. It gives our residents purpose and meaning. It connects them with our employees and lets them improve their lives.

So, we put a group of five residents on the road to visit all of our other campuses, share the story at our Langford campus in College Station, which's already taken off, they've raised $18,000 and tomorrow, they're awarding six scholarships to frontline employees. So, we're replicating that across the state, in this difficult time when it's hard to find and recruit employees. I mean, what are the things that set us apart? And it's okay if people come to work for us and they improve their lives or get a degree and go on to something else, we've been a part of the journey. So, it's a win-win not only for our residents, but also for the employee.

Lorraine Lewis (06:58):
I love that. That is so powerful and creative. One of the other things you shared with me is that you guys were really focused on being resident focused versus being medically driven as an organization. What does that look and feel like at an MRC campus?

Alan Brown (07:14):
Well, the decisions that we make when it comes to the license areas of assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing are not necessarily driven by the medical model. It's driven by the person and what is home and what is life supposed to look like. And life does not need to be directed by medical care every day. Those things are important, but we want folks to live their life and again, have that engagement and purpose. And then we're also going to meet their medical needs. And it's not letting medical needs dictate the rhythms of daily life, where everybody has to be up at a certain time or the medications all given at a certain time when folks go to a hospital, the first questions they have are, how am I doing and then when am I going home and we don't want to be set up like that. Traditional nursing homes have come out of that hospital model. And enough is enough. People don't want to spend the rest of their days in a hospital. So, we're looking at how we change that the Eden Alternatives as part of that, possibly new models of care and just the way that we treat people. So, we're excited about where we're going with that.

Lorraine Lewis (08:21):
No, that is exciting. You know, one of the things I had shared with some of my colleagues is this whole pandemic has been really this unusual experience for all of us, regardless of whatever mill you operate in terms of your day to day work. And you know, for me, I feel like it's like a walk in the wilderness, right? Like we're in this strange place. We don't know how long it's going to last. We don't know when we're going to get out. And so, it's been transformative for all of us in so many ways. You know, as you survey the landscape for senior living now 18 months into this journey, any thoughts or reflections in terms of what it's been or what you see moving forward?

Alan Brown (09:02):
Historically, no one has paid attention to the needs of older adults. And when you look at Texas, we have some of the worst reimbursement, or if not the worst reimbursement all the United States for caring for people in nursing homes. I think on Medicaid, we're paid about $130 a day and folks can't even find a nice hotel for that, but we're supposed to care for an elder and give them skilled nursing care and meet all their needs. And then when everything blows up on the news about all these things out of control and nursing homes and the pandemic, it makes it look like, oh, these are horrible places. People aren't doing their job. So, number one, those were underfunded and no one pays attention to older people, but they want to make it a political thing when they can relate it to the virus.

But as we come out of that, I hope we've gotten people's attention. Number one, our organization did a phenomenal job of taking care of people. We didn't have outbreaks. We did have some cases but not many widespread outbreaks over the last 14 months, it's been spread around. You know, we serve 2000 residents every day. So, I'm grateful for that. And that's a tribute to our team and the job that we do. And now we've got to tell our story, that, hey, we do a great job. These are great places to live. It's about life. It's not about a place where you go to die or be mistreated or be exposed to viruses and those kinds of things. So, we've got to tell that story and change the narrative and hopefully get somebody's attention. Now there's a lot of stimulus money that's been thrown our way, but that doesn't fix the long term problem.

How do we adequately fund services for older adults? The problem's going to continue to grow, or, you know, we talk about all the boomers that are coming, which was great, but a lot of baby boomers don't have the money to afford what they will need in the future. So, how does that get funded? How does it get taken care of? And it gets frustrating that just keeps being punted on down the road and no one wants to address it. So hopefully now, if anything comes out of COVID, its that it brought light to this and hey, we need to deal with this. And what's the future of elder care look like?

Lorraine Lewis (11:00):
No, I think that's a great insight Alan, truly. One of the things that struck me as the pandemic unfolded initially, there was so much emphasis placed on hospital workers, which of course we love our hospital workers and our first responders, but they provide episodic care. You know, we go, we take care of the problem and we leave and you know, really what you're doing is you're providing care for life. And there's a lot of dignity that needs to be involved in that. And so, one of my hopes coming out of the pandemic, I mean, there's been both positive and negative press for nursing homes, but certainly I think for our most fragile, great Americans, our seniors that are in many of these senior living facilities, my hope is that there will be more of an emphasis in recognizing their needs. And also that you guys are healthcare heroes. I mean, that was one of the things that I was really struck by, you know, we were flying jets and all kinds of stuff over hospitals, which I'm fully supportive of. But I mean, I don't know if the air force flew over MRCs campuses, but they should because you guys are really running the marathon. It's hard to run that sprint when you're in the hospital, it's intense and it's that acute care setting. But boy, talk to somebody running a marathon and you've talked somebody who's done good work.

Alan Brown (12:14):
Yeah. Our folks, they are heroes. And when you think about dawning, that protective gear coming to work, 8-12 hour shifts picking up extra days. And I mean, that stuff is miserable to work in. And then you're dealing with the fact that you have residents that you deeply care about. They're isolated from their families, family frustration comes into play. They can't see mom or dad. So, how do we bridge that gap? How do we fill that void for family? How do we assure families? So, it's been a challenging time.

Lorraine Lewis (12:44):
Well, Alan, I would like to thank you for generously giving us your time and sharing your story with us. It's a remarkable story and you guys are absolutely our healthcare heroes, thank you for running the marathon and thank you for making it a great race and to our audience. If you would like more information, please come find me at And my email address is Thanks y'all. Bye.

Outro (13:17):
Thank you for listening. And for more information, visit us at


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