Transcript: Entertainment and Engagement During COVID

Lifting Spirits with Aldersgate’s Brooks Shelley

Brooks Shelley: This is Brooks Shelley with Aldersgate Life Plan Services, and you’re listening to Cosmic Soup.

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Mike Peacock: Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Cosmic Soup. I am extra excited to bring you today’s episode because our guest is someone I’ve gotten to know quite well over the last year or so and he’s become one of my favorite people on the whole planet. He is 100% committed to promoting diversity, inclusion, and equity at his community, as well as providing top-tier entertainment and engagement to his residents. Please welcome, from Aldersgate Life Plan Services in Charlotte, North Carolina, Director of Branding and Community Engagement, Brooks Shelley. Hey, Brooks. Welcome to the show.

Brooks: Thank you, sir. Good to see you.

Mike: Yeah, you too. Awesome to have you all the way on the other side of the coasts to kind of have you take over both coasts, if you will.

Brooks: Where the sun is up and where the sun is down on your side.

Mike: [Laughter] Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Brooks: [Laughter]

Mike: Now, just so everybody knows – full disclosure here – Brooks and I have gotten to know each other pretty well because our company here at 3rdThird does some work with Aldersgate, so we’ve had some cool projects. Not naming any names or mentioning anybody specifically, but somebody that we might know does a show with Aldersgate called Aldersgate OnAir. It’s a really cool show with awesome guests and exciting topics. Definitely check it out.

Mike: Anyway, Brooks, it’s really cool to have you here because I wanted to talk to you about some of the things you all are doing over there at Aldersgate. It’s some outside of the box thinking. It’s something different. In many cases, it’s things that many people wouldn’t normally associate with the industry, and the things you’re doing can help people get through a potentially tough time this holiday season.

Let’s talk about your job title for a second. Now, I always thought it was Director of Marketing and Resident Engagement, but it’s actually Director of Branding and Community Engagement. Did that change or have I just been saying it wrong this whole time?

Brooks: Well, with the onset of COVID, community engagement, which is usually my external-facing view, turned to internal as well.

Mike: Oh!

Brooks: Because a lot of the interactions we have with the external community had to come to a stop because it was face-to-face and physical. We’re a 501(c)(3) and we let communities and organizations, neighborhood associations, whatever, utilize any of our meeting space that they want to.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: That had to stop, so we, unfortunately, like everyone else, had to hunker down and just try to keep everybody as safe and healthy as possible, which included keeping some of our community partners outside.

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: It was, as with everybody, a very creative time.

Mike: [Laughter] Well, you know, creativity, I think, right now is kind of the key because it really forces you to kind of think of not so much what you can’t do but what can we do. What solutions do we have that we can offer? Something is better than nothing, so what the heck. Let’s just give this a shot here.

One of the things that I like about what you do and one of the things that I’ve learned about you is that not only is it your job in terms of engagement and things like that, but you really make this a personal mission for yourself to keep residents engaged, to keep people engaged. You get to learn to know everybody and what they’re all about.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and talk with some of your residents. The consensus is that what you guys do at Aldersgate really helps them get through their days, not only on just the physical needs level but on a social level, which is fantastic. Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about what it is exactly that you do for Aldersgate?

Brooks: Well, we started out, and I appreciate what you said. Thank you. That is kind of the Aldersgate way of, okay, what can we do versus what can’t we do.

Mike: Right.

Brooks: We are a 501(c)(3). We’ve been in Charlotte for 72, almost 73 years now. Originally, founded as the Methodist Retirement Home. A couple of the ministers, Methodist ministers’ wives approached a local farmer and asked him to donate a couple of acres of land so that they could have a place to retire. That was the beginning and it has snowballed into 231 acres now. We have a full continuum of care from independent living to assisted living, skilled nursing, we even have hospice and dialysis on-site. It is literally a community in and of itself.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: A lot of what my job is to bring in outside people. By bringing in, I mean spread the word and get them engaged and get the people to know who we are. A lot of the misconceptions of a retirement home is not good.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: That is just not the case here. We have folks that are having a blast. We have people that aren’t retired.

Mike: [Laughter]

Brooks: They literally live here and go into work every day. What a great plan? Your maintenance is cared for. You’ve got your meals handled if you want to. Why not?

It is a blessing to come here every day. Really, I haven’t come to work any day since I’ve been here. It’s just coming to see my friends.

Mike: Yeah. It’s like that saying. If you love what you do, you don’t ever work a day in your life.

Brooks: Exactly.

Mike: That’s not just what you guys say. That’s what you do. That’s how you all live. Not just you, but everybody over at Aldersgate kind of does that.

You kind of touched on something, too. There’s this perception out there that a “retirement home,” if you will, is just this really dull, kind of boring place where people just slog through the rest of their lives. Their entertainment consists of bingo and solitaire.

I think that, really, what it’s come down to is, over the last several years, that whole industry is changing. The one thing that really helps people is the social element and the idea that, yeah, you got people to work here. They want to come here. They’re not stuck here. They’re not forced there. This is a choice. This is awesome. I love being here.

Let’s talk about some of the cool things that you have done at Aldersgate to kind of keep people engaged. I always go back to my favorite thing, going back to a few months ago when you implemented Margarita Mondays.

Brooks: [Laughter]

Mike: [Laughter] Which I thought was cool. I know you and I have talked about this on Aldersgate OnAir but tell the Cosmic Soup listeners. Let’s just get a little bit of Margarita Monday. Tell us all about that.

Brooks: Alrighty. We have, for years, focused on, with our residents, get out. Don’t stay indoors. Get out and socialize. When we built a new commons area with multiple dining options so that if you want a sandwich and that’s just it, you can grab a sandwich. It’s very deli-style.

But we intentionally had an architect that doesn’t build retirement centers and they did a really good job of creating rooms without creating walls. It’s very open and, typically, before COVID, bustling. Then we had to have a diametric shift and say, “You can’t come out. Don’t socialize with others. COVID is taking a toll. We’ve got to keep it out.”

That was a shift for us. It was a shift in our messaging to our residents. We were very fortunate in the fact that all of our residents receive iPads when they get here.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Brooks: When they move in, they receive an iPad. We use an app on it that handles calendars, RSVPs, menus, you name it. It was good that they already had that. They’ve been updated on it and shown how to use it. That was a huge step. Technology was really a good friend of ours then.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Brooks: We decided, okay, so if they can’t come out to others, why don’t others go to them safely?

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: Back up a minute. Part of what we did when we told residents not to come out was realizing they’ve got to eat and they’ve got to have their medicines. The things that they typically would go out for, we started doing.

We divided it out. It didn’t matter if you were senior leadership or whatever. You went to the grocery store. You made grocery store runs. You delivered meals. We even went to the ABC store.

They never missed a beat. They never had any type of interruption, so to speak, other than being secluded.

Margarita Monday was kind of one of those tongue in cheek things. Then we decided, well, why not? We put it out on our app and let everybody know the day and the time. We all grabbed a cart, grabbed some margarita mix, grabbed some cups. Everybody was masked and gloved, and we made the rounds.

Mike: [Laughter]

Brooks: It was a blessing to people to open the door and really be happy to see you, whether you had a margarita in your hand or not.

Mike: Right.

Brooks: That was just the bonus point.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: We’ve done things like that. As we’ve moved through with different restrictions and precautions, we are overly fortunate to have the amount of land and space that we have and open space.

Mike: Which is 231 acres, by the way, with a lake, so I mean there’s plenty to do.

Brooks: Yeah, and the weather was cooperating. We’ve got walking trails, a five-acre azalea garden, and a community garden. There are plenty of things to get out, but then getting back out of that mindset of, “Okay, I need to stay in the house to remain healthy,” we started doing things by the lake.

We had improved our walking paths around it. There is a gazebo sitting right up on top of the lake, and so we decided to have concerts. We called one of our local community friends, actually, that is a local historian but he also plays in a quartet.

They came out. We told all of our residents, “Mask up. Keep your distance. Bring something to eat or drink. We’ll come around with food and beverages if you like. But just come out and enjoy the weather. Get a breath of fresh air and have some music and at least get to see your friends, even if it’s across the lake a little bit.”

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: You still get that visual and eyes on.

Mike: You know they’re there.

Brooks: Right. We had planned it for, okay, if the first one goes, we’ll do it once a month. Well, then it got to the popularity of, okay, we’re going to do this every other week.

Mike: Oh, man.

Brooks: Every two weeks, we had some of our musical friends come out and it was a great exercise for all of our residents in how they handled the precautions. But then it also gave us – gave me back, especially – the aspect of community outreach. I was able to reach out to a local music company named Tosco Music Company. They’re a booking place, but they also play and they’ve been around for years.

I had him line up local talent to come in. Knowing that the bars were shut down and venues were shut down, a lot of our local artists were really suffering. If we were going to use artists, we may as well give back to the community, so he set everything up for us and he did a great job with it.

He was very welcoming, at the minimum, to us wanting to have our diversity, inclusion, and equity aspect reflected in our music choices as well. We were able to get different ethnicities, different cultures. Every other week, we had something different, and that exposure really helped our residents and helped the community at large.

Mike: Yeah. That’s awesome. Speaking of artists and community, aside from just the resident engagement, you do quite a bit of outreach. I also wanted to point out that one of the elements of engagement you do is that you partner with a local bakery and he bakes your residents’ birthday cakes.

Brooks: Yes.

Mike: Which is awesome. Everybody gets a birthday cake and it’s a personal touch. It just says, “Hey, I’m thinking about you. I know about you.” How do your residents respond to that?

Brooks: That came up as an idea when we first had to go into a precautionary stage, and we went. We did precautions probably earlier than most did.

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: I fully commend our CEO, our senior leadership team, our frontline staff, and all of our clinical staff. We did a roundtable, socially distanced, of pulling everybody from all the disciplines into the room and said, “Okay, so if this then what and what type of impact does this have on each of your departments here?” We were really able to plan for contingencies and that was helpful in a real-time method.

But we were talking about isolation and the fact that our residents wouldn’t be able to see their families. Again, back to the iPads and technology, we did instruction on Facetime. “This is how you Facetime your family and we’ll help you set it up. That way you can at least stay in contact visually with them as well.”

Then we took it further to, “Wow! How awful is it to spend your birthday in seclusion and not able to go out and get a birthday cake, not able to go out and celebrate?” One of our local bakers – it’s a Latin bakery that we’re connected to and do a lot of events with – we called him and just said, “Hey, we’ve got 500 residents and all of them will have birthdays and they’re not going to do it without a cake. If we give you the list and if we provide you an advance, can you deliver the cakes out?”

That’s what we do. Every week, we get a cake delivery. Our staff will take cakes to the residents’ doors and, on their birthday, they don’t miss a beat.

Mike: [Laughter] It’s amazing. On top of all of that, you’ve got technology via iPads and you’re showing people how to use it. Of course, you’ve got Aldersgate OnAir, which is, if I may say, a super awesome podcast that promotes, on some level also, some of the residents that are there. They get a chance to hear themselves on the radio or they get a chance to hear their friends on the radio. The community gets to hear it.

Brooks: Mm-hmm.

Mike: You also touched on another topic, which is, of course, the loneliness and the isolation. As we roll into the holidays, I think that the potential for people to become either depressed or display some sort of depressive behavior. What kind of things can we do during the holidays to kind of help keep residents engaged and keep their morale up? What kind of steps are you taking and what can other communities take to help out with those feelings?

Brooks: We have modified our culinary. Typically, obviously, Thanksgiving Day, we do a huge amount of culinary.

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: This year is going to be different. We, fortunately, have the space. Again, the designer did a great job when they did the architecture here so that we can actually have people spaced out inside and yet, still visually see others and feel like they’re actually dining out even though you’re not really huddled up on each other like you would be at a restaurant. We’ve modified that and we’re having that type of event going on.

We’re also doing a virtual blast. On their iPads, we’re sending out, on our app, different art museum virtual tours that you can take and different tourist ideas where you can go ride the rails through the Canadian railroad, and just different things like that that can get them engaged in being somewhere else other than where they’ve been staring at the four walls for months.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: We’re also doing, and this isn’t really Thanksgiving, but we decided we need Christmas.

Mike: [Laughter]

Brooks: We approached all of our partners and vendors and said, “Hey, we typically put out decorations every year. We use a contracted service. They come out. They put it up. They come back out and take it down. But we really want to add more. Would you be interested in sponsoring a tree?”

The response was overwhelming. We were able to put outdoor trees, in the event that there was a second wave and we had to go back into isolation.

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: Most of our common areas wouldn’t be accessible to our residents, so we put external trees. Every courtyard, there is a tree of some sort. We also have a menorah going on. It’s a seven-foot-tall menorah.

Every aspect of this campus, before we have our tour on December the 5th, you will not be able to look out of a window and not see something of the holidays. That was really the goal. We didn’t want anyone to have to stay in their room or their apartment or their home and not have some type of Christmas cheer.

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: Again, our vendors and partners really stepped up and we have taken it and we’re rolling with it. We’re going to do a campus driving tour on December the 5th.

Mike: I’ve heard about this event, by the way.

Brooks: I’d hope you had, even though you’re on the other side of the nation. December the 5th, we’re doing a driving tour. It’s the Festival of Lights. We’re going to obviously remain safe. People coming through have to stay in their vehicles, so we don’t want anyone interacting with any of the residents, personally, to the point that they could risk any contamination.

They come. They receive their map. It’s a driving tour that is led by our staff. It goes and winds through our independent living cottages and around the lake, up through our new common areas, and then back over to our skilled nursing facility, which looks like a nice arts and crafts home. Then back out the other side of the community.

We are lighting up the campus and the cost of admission is a nonperishable food donation to Second Harvest.

Mike: Love that.

Brooks: That way we are giving back to the community that really gives so much to us. It’s going to be a fun night.

Mike: Yeah. Also, your ideas that you all generate, what’s really cool is that this isn’t like a, “Hey, here’s an idea from the top down. Go execute this.” As far as engagement goes, everybody on your staff contributes ideas. Residents contribute ideas. You have any number of forums where these ideas get generated and then you guys just make it happen, which it sounds like that should always be the way it is, but that’s just not the way it is.

Brooks: [Laughter]

Mike: I’m really, actually, a fan of the fact that you guys do take all of your feedback and ideas seriously.

Brooks: It is. That’s a great point. We’ve, in the past – and everybody does it – try to imagine what people want and then provide it. We do a really good job of asking those people, “What do you want?”

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: If it’s possible, we’ll do it. Possible goes back to, obviously, budget.

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: Safety. Everything that goes along with that. Yeah, we have residents that have come up with some incredible stuff that just gives them a little bit more engagement, a little bit more fun.

Part of the Festival of Lights is the fact that we ask our independent living folks to decorate. Take what you normally do and decorate. Put it towards the front of the house. Put it on the lawn, wherever, and let’s really decorate. It gets them engaged.

Our partners and vendors, again, sponsored so much that we were able to give each area additional decorations. It really got them engaged with something to do and something to be excited about because this year has seemed like, every time you turn on the news, it’s something that you didn’t really want to see.

Mike: Yeah, right.

Brooks: It’s going to be a great thing to have lights and just have a little bit of brightness in this year.

Mike: Heck, yeah. A little bit of a sensory jogging to kind of boost the mood a little bit. From a purely business standpoint, if we’re going to get all business-y about it, happier residents mean a fuller house, right?

Brooks: Absolutely.

Mike: A perpetually fuller house.

Brooks: What a great thing to be able to actually pick and choose your neighbors?

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: You can literally call your best friends and say, “Hey, come move in down the street from me.” I’d love that.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, here on the old Cosmic Soup, we have what we refer to as the Cynthia questions.

Brooks: [Laughter]

Mike: We ask these questions of every guest that comes on our show, so I’m going to ask these questions of you. It’s two simple questions. Okay?

Question number one: Let’s just say that you had the epic magic wand of awesomeness and you could wave said magic wand and create your own dream community for yourself for you to live in when it’s time to go do all that. What would it consist of and what would be included? What would your dream community look like?

Now, I know Aldersgate is pretty fricken’ awesome, but let’s just say that you weren’t already at Aldersgate. What would your community look like?

Brooks: I would think that – and I love the magic wand question because it always sparks something that may not have been thought of before that you can go, “Hmm. Maybe that’s possible.”

Mike: That’s right. Nothing off-limits.

Brooks: Exactly. I would create more outdoor venues, more amphitheaters, something that could be accessed all year long and provide not only entertainment but something that could give back to the community. But I would also want to add more cultural exposure, and not only cultural but financial. We are hitting the point now where there are going to be more seniors retiring than there is housing available and not everyone can afford it. More diverse price point housing specifically geared for seniors.

If you make it to that point, you need to be taken care of. You need to have something to look forward to. You need to not worry. Some time of diverse price point / mixed-income / mixed-use, I would love to see some commercial aspects of it as well that would really bring in a lot of the mom and pops and do something that’s local, shop local, and have any of our diverse neighbors and vendors and partners actually have space and thrive that way.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah, I love that. It’s basically the idea that you’re not locked into a place. It’s still a community, right? Things are happening and other people are involved. The community without walls, right?

Brooks: Exactly. Exactly.

Mike: That’s exactly the concept that you have kind of brought up time and time and time again. Whether or not they’re real walls or philosophical walls, the idea that you’ve got freedoms, you’ve got choices.

Brooks: Exactly.

Mike: I absolutely love that. The final question, then: Three things that senior living providers can do today, right now, to positively affect the lives of their staff and their residents.

Brooks: This is a very cheating answer because, of course, we’re doing it or we’ve done it.

Mike: [Laughter] You’re doing it.

Brooks: Pick up the phone.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: Pick up the phone and call them. If nothing else, they need to hear another voice and get some type of exposure. We divvy it up, all of our residents, amongst our staff. Everybody was partnered up. We tried to partner up folks that typically wouldn’t have anything to really talk about in common, and it was a blessing for both the residents and our team members because they got to speak to them.

The second part would be, don’t assume that you know what they really want. Ask them. What they want is probably entirely different than what we would have provided. It is a changing demographic and changing wants, desires, and needs.

Probably a third is, provide them with the ability to actually do what they want within the confines of being safe. Enable them instead of institutionalizing them. Enable them to actually have precautions but still be able to be viable and lively and enjoy themselves.

Again, we’ve got acreage here that has really been a godsend just to get people out, but safe. Those would probably be the three things I would recommend.

Mike: Yeah, and that all comes back to that all-encompassing theme, which is, engage them.

Brooks: Exactly. The first three words of our mission statement are, “We honor elders.” Honor is a very big category.

Mike: Sure.

Brooks: It could be engagement. It could be respect. It could be equity. That’s what we always preach to our staff is, “If you just go by those three words in your everyday experience here, you will get as much out of it as they will.”

Mike: Yeah. Awesome. Well, those were fantastic answers. Is there anything else that you wanted to throw out there to the world before I let you get back to your day?

Brooks: Man, that’s the best question you’ve had the whole time, Mike.

Mike: Boom.

Brooks: Probably it is to – again, it sounds so simple but it seems to be missing – be kind to each other.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah.

Brooks: Just be kind.

Mike: We have a very vulgar way to say that where I come from, but yes.

Brooks: [Laughter]

Mike: It all comes down to the same thing. Don’t be a jerk. Be awesome. It’s not that difficult to do. Treat people nice. Treat them well. Treat them with sincerity and with compassion. It makes the world a better place.

I applaud you and everybody over on your team at Aldersgate because that’s exactly what you do. Not because you have to. Because that’s just the kind of people you are. If there were more of you all out there, then maybe we’d have a little bit more sunshine. Maybe the sun would rise before 7:30 in the morning here where I am at.

[Laughter]

Brooks: Thank you, sir.

Mike: Well, thank you, Brooks, for joining us today on Cosmic Soup. I know for a fact I’m going to talk to you again real soon. Everybody, check out Aldersgate OnAir and go check out Aldersgate on their website, aldersgateuniversity.com. Is that right, aldersgateuniversity.com?

Brooks: That’s right.

Mike: See what they’re all about. Go check out all their awesome events. Get some ideas and, yeah, make the world a better place. Thank you, Brooks. I’ll talk to you again soon, man.

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Brooks: Thank you so much.

Mike: Thanks, of course, to all of you for checking out the show. As always, don’t forget. Send us those questions, thoughts, comments, ideas to [email protected] Follow Cosmic Soup and 3rdThird Marketing on all those fancy social media sites.

Thanks again for hanging out with us and we’ll talk to you soon on Cosmic Soup.

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