For residents: Reclaiming the resident council

The final post in a three-part series

In the first two posts, I outlined why most resident council meetings fall short of their potential (Why most resident council meetings in nursing homes are a sham) and offered suggestions for nursing homes to improve them (How to run effective resident council meetings). Today’s post is for the residents. Since most residents don’t have Internet access, I hope readers will print out a copy and pass it along to people they think might be interested.

Of all those involved in nursing home life, you, as residents, are in the unique position of not having to worry about being written up, fired, or cited by the state. There are no jobs to attend, no chores to be done, and no bills to be paid. You have free time and experience that can be put to good use. As my Aunt Bevy used to remark, “Eleanor, I can say what I want—I’m an old lady!” You are free in many ways from the constraints that prevent others from taking action.

I know some people worry about retaliation for speaking up. As a psychologist, I’d suggest taking a moment to consider whether that might be a “left-over” feeling from childhood experiences in your family. In a nursing home, there are many people and agencies there to protect you and your rights. The changes I’m suggesting are beneficial for the nursing home, which can advertise a strong and effective Resident Council and point to improvements as a result. The changes generally don’t cost much money, such as providing a computer, or they’re free, such as adding a week to the meal rotation or bringing in Twelve-Step Meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, so there’s not a big burden to the administration. And, as you’ll see from my suggestions below, creating change takes teamwork, with a group of residents working together, rather than a single individual.

If you’ve ever attended a resident council meeting, thought they could be better, but weren’t sure what to do, try these steps:

Step one: Find your peers. Every nursing home I’ve ever worked in has many bright, capable residents wishing there were other bright, capable residents to talk to. You are not alone. Recreational activities are a great place to scout for potentially like-minded individuals. Attend groups such as the trivia or news programs, note who the more alert residents are, and ask the recreation staff to seat you next to them. On your floor, take a roll (or a stroll) down the hall, looking for neighbors who might be interested in conversation. Keep an open mind—those who might look on the outside to be quite disabled may surprise you.

Step two: Start a conversation. I once went to a conference on women’s networking and the speaker said that women were terrible at making contacts because they were waiting to be properly introduced. She recommended approaching someone sitting by themselves and making a comment like, “Hello. What do you think of this conference?” I’ve tried this and it works. Say something like, “What did you think of the lunch today?” Or the activity. Or how Obama is doing. Or even ask about the weather. The goal is to make a connection and see if the person is someone you can talk to.

Step three: Work in teams to overcome disability. Let’s say you and a friend have been talking about revamping the resident council meetings, but you can’t move your wheelchair yourself and your friend can’t hear very well. This is a perfect opportunity for teamwork. Try sitting together in an activity or in the hallway on your floor, and approaching your peers together. The person who can get around can invite neighbors over to talk, and the person who can hear can do most of the talking. I once ran a group where a man who could see, but not write, helped a blind teacher compose a letter by setting her pen onto each new line of text.

Step four: Discuss your plan. Ask the people you approach if they’ve ever been to a resident council meeting, and see if they’d like to attend one with you. Let them know you’re hoping to get a large group of alert residents to attend at the same time, with the goal of working with the staff to create a strong, positive meeting. Find out whether they have any friends who might be interested, and if they’ll talk to them, or will let them know you’ll be coming by to speak with them.

Step five: Enlist the help of residents on other floors. If each floor has a resident or two making connections, you can reach the whole nursing home. If you don’t know people in a particular area of the home, find a peer who can ambulate and have them locate an interested individual.

Step six: Set a target date. To give enough time for grass-roots organizing, set a start date two or three months into the future.

Step seven: Tell the staff leader. Let the staff leader of the resident council know that more people than usual might be expected at the target meeting. Tell the leader there’s interest in working with the staff to become more involved in the nursing home. Be diplomatic. This is the time to provide reassurance about your purpose, rather than to cause panic about a resident revolt. If it seems appropriate, ask your staff leader to read my first two blog posts on this subject.

Step eight: Learn about running meetings. Spending time during the resident council meetings, or even before you attend, to learn about group process will make your meetings more effective. Tap your resources, including the staff member running the meetings, residents with leadership experience, and Robert’s Rules of Order. The Pennsylvania Long Term Care Ombudsman Program has a project in which they train residents to work with staff to advocate for themselves and to become members of the resident council.

Step nine: Call for elections. Elections are central to a Democratic process and can energize not only the Resident Council Meetings, but the entire nursing home. In one facility, residents campaigned for positions on the resident council by hanging up posters, giving talks about their ideas, and delivering flyers from room to room, glad-handing along the way. It was fun.

Step ten: Be creative. As residents, you have the power to call for change in a way that staff members can’t. Want to knit scarves for the homeless? Form an activity group. Want to buy some umbrellas for the patio? Have a bake sale. Want to elect, or re-elect, the next U.S. president? Start a letter-writing campaign.

What do you want to do?

Dr. Barbera is an author and a licensed psychologist consulting in long-term care facilities in the New York City area. She frequently lectures on subjects related to psychology, aging, and nursing homes. Dr. Barbera is available for private consulting with organizations, institutions, and individuals around eldercare issues. Visit her personal blog at

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