June 8, 2022 – Retirement living communities have faced challenging times these last few years. From the rising cost of inflation and severe staff shortages to the myriad of impacts brought on by Covid-19—it’s been a roller coaster of uncontrollable circumstances which no one is immune to. While these events have greatly affected residents in many ways, the staff who have dedicated their lives to caring for these residents have been hit even harder—the nurses, caregivers, dining and housekeeping staff—those who have made caring for older adults their life’s work.
On average, 3 out of 5 Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. That’s 60% of the population and includes the nearly 17% of long-term care staff who already hold two jobs to make ends meet. Many of these workers also send home large portions of their paychecks to provide for family overseas. In addition, roughly 40% of retirement community workers in Washington State are minorities who have been most effected by Covid-19.
What this means at the end of the day is the majority of retirement community staff have little to no financial support when emergencies strike.
There is a team of passionate residents and administrators at several communities in the Pacific Northwest working hard to change that. Transforming Age, the nonprofit organization that runs Skyline, Parkshore and Fred Lind Manor in Seattle, WA has established an Employee Emergency Fund at each community where residents can donate resources to staff members who are experiencing hardship due to emergency situations. This fund is allocated for emergencies such as medical costs that go beyond insurance coverage, necessary dental work, travel costs to tend to an ill family member, funeral costs (for a spouse or family member), car repair due to an emergency, Covid-related hardship and more.
“It’s about caring for those who care for you,” says Kendall Baker, retired pastor and long-time Skyline resident.
Kendall and his wife Sonia moved into Skyline in October 2009. Charter members of this new community, the Bakers committed to Skyline when it was all but a parking lot and were eager to move in upon completion.
“One of our interests in moving to Skyline, was not just being in the new physical structure, but also being a part of birthing a new community,” recalls Baker. “We were excited to help shape the culture and contribute what we could to this becoming a caring community.”
Baker served on the Skyline Fund Advisory Committee helping establish four Skyline funds in which residents could donate to annually through the Hearts of Gold Campaign: 1) General Enhancement, 2) Resident Assistance, 3) Skyline Employee Education, and 4) Skyline Community Outreach.
“We have great appreciation for the staff who are hired to serve us,” he explains. “Here at Skyline there is a concerted effort to not take our staff for granted and to value their importance in our lives. This has manifested in many ways.”
One of these ways is through the Employee Education Fund. The other is through the Employee Emergency Fund (part of the General Enhancement Fund) which was inspired by Skyline Concierge, Cheryl Hughes.
Cheryl Hughes began her position as Skyline Concierge in 2010.She worked hard at her job every day, serving the Skyline community with a smile, and won the hearts of its residents. In 2014, Hughes was diagnosed with breast cancer and the residents rallied around her.
“They insisted on taking me to all my chemotherapy appointments and even created an Excel spreadsheet to map out who was taking me to what when,” she recalls warmly. “It was very sweet and lovely—the techs at treatment couldn’t believe it.”
But the residents wanted to do more for Hughes. Dr. Marie Rosenberg, a resident at the time, was particularly fond of her and wanted to organize a special fund for her when she heard about Hughes’ diagnosis. The gesture was appreciated but she couldn’t accept any funds, tips or gifts from a resident without the risk of losing her job according to company policies. In full support of Hughes, residents worked with corporate administration to establish rules and use around an employer-dispersed fund backed by resident donations and the Employee Emergency Fund was born in 2015.
“I found this fund to be a wonderful blessing,” says Hughes. “There is nothing more stressful than getting sick and not having the money to pay for a surprise like this, meanwhile racking up more and more medical bills, not knowing if you will even make it out the other side. This fund helped hold me up. It was a sense of security in a very scary time.”
Hughes had her operation, followed by months of chemo, months of radiation, and 7 years of medication. She continued to work at Skyline throughout the whole treatment time, finding coverage from coworkers when needed and solid support from her manager Heidi Davis.
“Now, 8 years later, I just graduated from the cancer club—I am cancer free,“ she beams. “The gang got me flowers to celebrate. I love the people I work with and the residents I work for.”
Without resident Rosenberg and her unwavering support of a staff member, this fund would not exist. Hughes is forever grateful that she initiated the idea and that Skyline made it happen, first for her, and now, for many others. Like Chris Eager…
Chris Eager started his journey with Transforming Age at Fred Lind Manor in 2019 as Director of Dining Services. Growing up in the Virgin Islands and owning his own restaurant in Belize, Eager moved to the Northwest to be closer to his mom while exploring the restaurant scene in Seattle. He first worked at a handful of high-end restaurants downtown before starting a new path in retirement community dining in 2008.
“I didn’t want to stay up managing until 2AM anymore,” he laughs. “Here, I feel cared for while caring for our residents.”
Eager is incredibly proud of his staff both in terms of the high quality meals they produce, and also in their service to residents.
“My staff goes the above and beyond—to walk someone’s dog after they have clocked out, or chase a resident who has wandered away. I work hard to empower then to handle things so they have the confidence to say, ‘yes, I’ve got this,’” he explains. “When you work in retirement living, everything is your job because you are taking care of residents. It extends well beyond the four walls of a restaurant. We are watching for changes in residents’ weight, appetite, temperament—empowering the whole staff to take great care of our residents.”
But sometimes the caregiver needs to be cared for as well. Just when he was hitting his stride at work, Eager was faced with an immense challenge at home that that he had never anticipated.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people didn’t go to the doctor like they normally would—including my wife,” Eager somberly recalls. “We found out on Nov 11, 2020 that my wife had aggressive liver cancer.”
When Eager heard the news, he was devastated. He reached out to his former Administrator Dave Foltz and current Administrator Mari Harrell.
“I explained to them that I couldn’t leave my job because I needed to pay for everything, but I also knew I’d have to be gone a lot due to all the upcoming doctor appointments,” says Eager.
Both the administrator and his wife had suffered cancer previously and understood Eager’s situation all too well. He was set him up with FMLA (Family & Medical Leave Act) information and encouraged to try for the Employee Emergency Fund. Eager applied and was approved.
“My whole life I worked in an industry that never provided insurance,“ Eager explains. “Being employed by Transforming Age, I finally worked for a company with great benefits and good healthcare and felt much more cared for at a job than I ever had before. So I was blown back by this to begin with. But then to also get FMLA and receive help from the Employee Emergency Fund, I felt truly cared for at a time when I really needed it.”
The Employee Emergency Fund made a big difference Eager’s life as the news was sinking in.
“We were so scattered, I didn’t know which end was up,” he recalls. “Insurance went from $120 to over $400 per month and we wondered what we were going to do. I thought maybe I’d drive for Uber after work. But then I couldn’t be there to fix my wife dinner.”
Receiving this fund was the first time Eager realized there were people who wanted to help.
“At first I felt uncomfortable accepting help, let alone telling my story, because, historically my demographic has received the lion’s share of everything, yet I manage people who fall into disenfranchised groups,” Eager admits. “I did it for my wife. Unfortunately, her cancer has spread and she will not recover from this. But when I found out how I could help others through this fund, that’s been the most rewarding part to me. In fact, I am now a proud contributor myself. I’ve never felt such a need to be generous as I do now.”
In an effort to pay it forward, not only is Eager making monthly contributions, he has now helped several members of his staff apply for (and receive) the Employee Emergency Fund.
“Knowing about this program and benefiting from it myself, helps me to be a better manager,” explains Eager. “For me to commiserate and say, ‘I have been in your shoes and it’s here for you just like it was for me,’ makes all the difference. I tell them I was made better by this fund and hopefully they will be too.”
When caring for residents is your job, you don’t want to let them down or not be there for them. But as Eager reminds us, “you can’t take care of others, unless you first take care of yourself.”
“Because we are in the business of taking care of others, it means a lot when we see there is a way to take care of us too,” he smiles. “The Employee Emergency Fund is a concrete way to greatly improve the lives of people in distress in your very own community who have taken the noble path of caring for you or your loved ones as their chosen profession.”
The Employee Emergency Fund is an example of how caring goes both ways at Transforming Age.
“This fund exemplifies our culture of caring,” concludes Kendall Baker. “We have an extraordinarily good relationship between residents and staff, and a management team who values those who serve our community and upon whom we depend for the good and safe quality of life we enjoy here.”
“We all come together to take care of each other,” says Transforming Age Foundation Director Allison Riese. “In caring for our employees as we would like to be cared for ourselves, we are just trying to do our part in tackling what we have come to know as a national issue.”