Surviving the RPI

This Recession is finally getting to me. Oops, sorry. The President has asked me not to call it that. Let me start over.

This Reverse Prosperity Interlude (RPI) is finally getting to me. Like all my gun-toting, knife-sharpening, food-hoarding, barricade-building neighbors, I’m worried, stressed, irritable, and emotionally fragile. I don’t have any idea what’s happened or what the future holds, but I manage to channel my ignorance into wild, unfounded speculation, and exist in a perpetual state of panicked tizzy.

I go to bed each night staring at the Bloomberg financial ticker with horrified, bloodshot eyes. I wake up to the 24/7 corporate-sponsored puppet show over at CNBC. As a result, I don’t get much sleep in between, and start every day with clenched teeth and white knuckles, feeling like I just spent eight hours trapped on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

I’m not that much fun to be around in good times, so you can imagine how it is when things are tough. Living with me right now is like listening to an endless test of the Emergency Broadcast System. As a pillar in my community, I should probably buck up and be a source of strength for weaker members of the herd. Instead, I perform my daily one-man Chicken Little routine on the courthouse steps, to mostly tepid reviews.

“But Gary,” perhaps you’re saying, “aren’t you the guy who wrote compellingly in this very magazine about the importance of always looking on the bright side?” Well, yes. I guess that was me. But in retrospect, that perspective seems hopelessly naïve. These days, even on the rare occasions when life hands me lemonade, I’m much more inclined to turn it into lemons.

As a long-term care leader, of course, you don’t have the luxury of panic or pessimism. You’re the captain of a ship in stormy waters, with an obligation to be strong and help others survive. I just have a wife and a dog and a Facebook page to maintain, but you’ve got a building, a budget, and the welfare of your residents and staff to think about. If you’re paralyzed by your own fears, everyone loses.

That’s why, for the sake of all who look to you for inspiration and leadership, I’m going to help get you through this dark time. Though your problems may not be solved by following these five practical tips, they will at least be very different:

1. Demand your bailout. First things first. Go straight to your facility owner, regional director, or the judge who’s handling the bankruptcy of your parent corporation, and say, “I’ve made some bad personal financial decisions, and the inevitable, easily forseen consequences of those mistakes are rippling through the building and undermining my ability to provide the undistracted care and support my residents and staff require. I am too big and important to fail. You must act immediately and reward my bad judgment by filling this souvenir AHCA tote bag with unmarked 20s.”

2. Turn off the news. Let’s suppose you’re married, and have been drawn against your will into a heated argument with your life partner. You know you’re 100% right, and all the forces of truth and goodness are on your side. But you also know that somebody just needs to be the bigger person and walk away, and it’s clearly not going to be your stubborn, myopic spouse. That’s what this is like. The news channels aren’t going to stop delivering inaccurate and sensational doomsday coverage designed to crush your spirit. It’s up to you to stop watching-and to explain to the officer why you chose to turn off the TV with a shotgun.

3. Make no sudden movements. You should approach the RPI as you would an unexpected grizzly bear attack. Move slowly and play dead if you have to. You can’t outrun a great big furry recession. Survival requires mental strength and a lot of shallow breathing on the forest floor.

In other words, don’t do anything rash. You need to focus on the problem at hand. That means no career changes. No new homes or relationships. Most of all, no self-improvement projects, since you’ll need all your existing vices more than ever. I have a very foolish friend who has chosen the worst possible time-now-to stop consuming aspartame. While she attempts to endure the crisis without the cool comfort of a Diet Coke in her hand, those of us around her are paying a heavy price.

4. Shift your focus. A facility project can help take your mind off your own troubles, so try throwing yourself into recruitment efforts. Ignore the irony that even with millions of people out of work, you still can’t seem to find a CNA for the 3-11. At least 8.2% of the names in your local phone book are likely unemployed, so start making random calls. You’ll feel better if you’re busy, and most folks will be grateful you cared enough to call at dinnertime.

This might also be the moment to beef up your marketing efforts, while still reflecting reality. Let’s say you’ve got a five star quality rating on, but your aging physical plant is badly over-leveraged and in financial jeopardy. Consider amending your brochures to say, “Your loved one will receive excellent, compassionate care in one of the area’s top-rated toxic assets.”

5. Unleash your populist rage. Catharsis is critical to healing, but the hardest part of all this is knowing who to blame and punish for what’s happened. After all, not every garish mansion houses a derivative trader, bonus recipient, or Ponzi schemer. Some of the people inside are innocent endodontists. But how can you tell the difference? It’s simple-by following them to the mall and observing their parking habits.

Those who park far from the store with at least two empty spaces on either side are ultra-cautious types who always expect the worst. They refused to put all their investment eggs in the market, and diversified years ago. They’re not happy with their returns, just like they’re not happy about walking 900 yards to Bed Bath & Beyond. But they’re safe, and have done nothing to hurt you.

Next are those who believe they’ll find a closer spot if they just circle the perimeter one more time. They’ll do this for hours, and this kind of baseless optimism is also what got them into desperate financial trouble. They kept watching for a better deal, a lower rate, a shortcut to prosperity. They knew the get-rich-quick opportunity was out there somewhere, beckoning like a rock-star parking space, but they didn’t bother to calculate the odds. They deserve your pity, but not your hatred.

The real object of your rage should be the third group-the backing-in parkers. When they find a spot, they don’t just unobtrusively occupy it. They swerve wide, slam into reverse, and enter the space like it’s a freeway on-ramp. Then they walk away smugly in their shiny suits, leaving their cars crouching low with brooding headlights and a cruel smirk on the grill, as though waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting shopper or make a quick getaway. Clearly, these are the financial predators, the soulless sharks who ambushed an unsuspecting country, and when you find one, you’ll know what to do-tuck a disapproving note under a wiper blade.

Feel better? Good. Now grab a Diet Coke and get back to your facility. You have random phone calls to make. “Hello, Bradford P. Johnson? Are you unemployed and free from 3 to 11…?”

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington.

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Long-Term Living 2009 May;58(5):38

Topics: Articles