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Just one more question

June 1, 2009
by Gary Tetz
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Like the great TV detective Columbo, Long-Term Living columnist Gary Tetz (Funny You Should Ask) always has one more question. In this bimonthly feature, he talks with long-term care leaders about anything that pops into his mind. He's as surprised as you are that they'll speak to him, and apologizes in advance for whatever inanity he might blurt out in the pressure of the moment.

As we stand together on the brink of economic apocalypse, I wondered how a good nursing home administrator keeps people focused. So I asked one of my undercover long-term care informants/moles who I should talk to, and she suggested Lori Cooper.

Lori has been at Stonebrook Healthcare Center since 1992, and has served as administrator since 1999. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration/Health Services Administration from the University of San Francisco, and serves on the public advocacy committee for the California Association of Health Facilities (CAHF).

Her only ground rule was that I make her look witty, and “not like I have a big 'ol foot in my mouth.” I reluctantly agreed.

Hi, Lori. Is this still a good time to talk?

Yes. I was just updating my home flood insurance policy, and it was making me crazy. Maybe I'm a little bitter. Let's write about that!

You're in Concord. That's near San Francisco, right?

A little bit east, yes.

If I recall, you have a lot of windmills down there.

That's a different part of town.

So your facility is not powered by wind?

It is not.

Except when the politicians drop by.

That's true!

Well, thanks again for calling me back. You had no idea who I was. Weren't you afraid?

No, but now I am.

I could have been anybody. A regulator, an attorney. You had no way to know.

True, you can never know.

As an administrator, what is the phone call you most dread when you're paged overhead?

Well, I would most dread being paged overhead. We don't do that.

Good answer. It was a trick question.

The call I would hate the worst would be if somebody eloped. That wouldn't be good. I don't dread the state coming in. They don't worry me too much.

Why is that? That's not normal.

Maybe not. But they're just doing their job, and we're doing ours too. I have confidence in our staff and the way we run our building.

That's a very admirable attitude. How do you manage to maintain such cheerfulness?

Well, I just love what I do. Truly, I do. I have good owners and a good staff, and we've all been here a long time. I've been administrator for ten years, but I've been in the building for 17, so that helps. I think administrators who do a lot of job hopping don't have that comfort level.

So it's not just an act? You're not inwardly a seething ball of rage?

No. I'm really not. Unless you want to go back to that flood insurance we were talking about earlier. I can be sarcastic, though.

So you actually enjoy your job. After ten years you don't feel like you're just waiting for parole?

I enjoy it. I really do.

What's the worst part of being a long-term care administrator in California right now?

Oh my god.

That bad, huh?

You worry about the reimbursement and how you're going to care for your building full of medical residents if the state goes bankrupt. Things like that.

What's your secret for coping with that sort of stress?

I think it's laughter. I laugh things off, though maybe you can't tell that from our conversation so far.

These are difficult times for everyone. What's the key to being an effective leader?

Well, I listen to my employees. I know them all by name, and I know a lot about what's going on with them. As a building, we try to be understanding and make accommodations when we can. You have to be constantly there for your staff, and do things to keep them going.

Like what?

We've done all kinds of things here. If somebody says something nice about someone on a resident satisfaction survey, I'll go down and tell everybody what a wonderful job they've done and give them a little award. Each year we do a campaign, the last one was called “Get your game on,” and it was just a way to keep people motivated and excited about doing their daily job.

It's fun here. People smile a lot. It's not a downer to go to work, and I think you have to keep it that way. We laugh together, we cry together sometimes. But mainly we're laughing.

What's the most inspirational thing you've ever said in a staff meeting?

Ice cream man!

Ice cream comma man?

No, we have the actual ice cream man come here, you know, with the bell ringing. Other than that, I'm not one for big inspirational speeches.

So nothing you've said is ever going to be etched on a marble wall?

I think the most important thing I say is how much I appreciate what they're doing, and that doesn't necessarily come as a big speech in front of everybody. Sometimes it's just one on one, hearing it from me.

You're a former music therapist. If you had to soothe your staff by singing a song, what would it be?

“You Light Up My Life.”

What if you needed to soothe them with a song written since 1977?

Maybe I don't know any.

Do you ever just wander through the building strumming your guitar?

I've been known to play the piano in the building, but not so much the guitar lately.

It seems like you need a more mobile instrument.

Maybe I need one of those accordion things with the cymbal and the drum.