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What Happened on the Way to the Bistro –
Resident Collective Action

By Lillian L. Hyatt, M.S.W., and a Resident of a CCRC

Excerpted from the Winter 2007 The CANHR Advocate newsletter

Continuing Care Retirement Communities trace their historical roots to church and fraternal organizations. While CCRCs remain largely non&ndashprofit organizations committed to service, there is a disturbing trend for them to act more like for&ndashprofit organizations focused on marketing and "the bottom line." Does this mark a fundamental shift of mission and priorities? For example, in my CCRC there was not enough money in the budget to hire a person to be at the front desk of the Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) after 5 p.m. when three dining rooms were filled and patients needing help had to be fed in their rooms. Once at 6 p.m., I could not locate a staff person to report a resident in a wheelchair who had not received her meal. I was told each nurse carried a cell phone. When a nurse finally appeared, she collapsed in her chair, exhausted, and looking at the patient asking for her meal, she called over the desk, "What do you want?"

When I applied to enter my CCRC, no mention was made of the poor condition of the building. One night a column fell in the dining room because of repeated flooding after rains. At that point, the truth came out and residents were told a massive renovation had to be done to make the building "Safe and Marketable." In other words, those of us who had recently entered found that we had bought into a CCRC that was neither safe nor marketable. We had been marketed a fairy tale! The next two years were a nightmare of noise, dirt, confusion and a horde of workmen tramping about day and night. In addition, our monthly care fees increased 8.5 percent!

Within the past year, plans have been discussed to make CCRCs marketable to a future generation of baby boomers who would start entering in the next five to ten years. Since our urban location precluded offering a golf course or tennis courts or even a swimming pool, the administration decided to tear out the building’s central atrium with a beautiful fountain and decorative pool, exquisite plantings and a comfortable lounge in order to install a bistro.

One of the major justifications given for the renovation is "It will cost the residents nothing." The money would come from the interest on investments made by the CCRC with residents’ fees. In short, a country club atmosphere for future residents would be paid for by today’s residents’ fees, many of whom will have passed on by the time of its completion.

Furthermore, present residents face many unmet needs. Elevators break down regularly in this twenty–five story building where many residents use canes, crutches, walkers or wheelchairs. There is a pressing need for a full time social worker to help residents faced with major crises, e.g., fatal illness, loss of a mate, and general declines in health. The food service staff has a difficult job feeding the mobile residents in addition to those in the nursing home and assisted living while catering parties and conferences. As a result, residents who need special food services are considered to be "too expensive." Finally, the question can be raised of why this extra income could not be used to pay down the debt incurred by the past renovation or to reduce residents’ fees.

To promote the Bistro, the administration chose a residents’ advisory committee without any consultation &ndash it was a hand picked rubber stamp group. When the matter of the bistro was brought up at the Residents’ Council, the members were told: "Let us wait to see what management has to say." No discussion was encouraged to ascertain the feelings of the residents themselves. The Residents’ Council served, as usual, to deflect views not in agreement with administration’s plans.

A Town Meeting &ndash actually it was a sales presentation &ndash was met with anger, resentment and numerous unanswered questions. A major point of resident resentment was the plan to tear out a patio pool—fountain—garden, the center of the building’s decor, in order to place tables and chairs for a bistro across the entire area. Residents demanded another meeting with administration, and it seems that, at least for the time being, plans for the Bistro are on hold.

Only time will tell whether the management will override the wishes and pressing needs of present CCRC residents or if the collective voices of residents will prevail and prevent this reckless expenditure.