The laundry quandary

Marketing a senior living community—regardless of where that community falls on the continuum of options—includes presenting a pleasing physical environment to prospective residents and their families, who will use their senses of smell and sight, as well as other means, to assess the quality of care and services you provide as well as the quality of life maintained by and for those in your care. In this era of the person-centered approach, in which resident dignity is prioritized, one very visible sign of the respect you have for residents is the cleanliness and fit of their clothing. Establishing and following consistent procedures for the laundry services you offer—even if those services are contracted out, therefore, not only can play a role in keeping your census at a comfortable level; perhaps most importantly, it also can help keep your current residents and their families satisfied.

For the 30 communities of Elkhorn, Neb.-based Vetter Health Services, the process begins the moment a new resident comes through the door, says Ron Seipold, environmental services coordinator.

“Our environmental services crew will go to the room when the resident is coming in, and they will orient them on which fabrics we can and cannot get clean without damaging,” he says. “We want to make sure everything that we’re washing is [machine] washable and not something we have to treat separately.”

An initial inventory of the resident’s clothes is taken as part of the admissions process, during which team members use a heat seal device to label every item of the resident’s clothing, even socks. Ideally, even the clothes the resident wore to the community are labeled then, too, after he or she changes into clothing that already has been marked. “The labels are good for about 100 washings, which, depending on how many clothes somebody has and how often he or she wears something, can be a couple of years,” Seipold says. Team members try to watch for new garments that come into the community as well—for instance, after a resident’s birthday or holiday—to ensure that they can be laundered using the on-site equipment and so that they can be labeled.

Soiled resident clothing goes to the laundry right away and is not left in residents’ rooms, because of odors. Other laundry is collected every morning around 9 a.m., and the laundry aides doing the collecting are tasked with identifying items that need new labels as well as looking for eyeglasses, hearing aids, dentures and other items that accidentally found their way into the laundry. Clothes are sorted, washed and dried, with the goal that everything be returned the same day.

More than looks

When the clothes are returned, they should look as they did when they were collected as far as color and size, Seipold says. Vetter’s chemical supplier, Ecolab, “has a special formula that is designed to make sure we keep the color in there and that we’re not bleaching anything out,” he says. “But then they also make sure that the water temperature is to the point where we’re not damaging those fabrics, either.”

Of course, sanitation and infection control are primary concerns in laundering clothing and other items, and you’ll want to be sure that your approach complies with all applicable governmental and industry regulations. Toward that end, at Vetter, “clothes are never washed with anything but other clothing from other folks,” Seipold says. Beyond that practice, he says he finds Ecolab to be a great resource regarding regulatory requirements. “Requirements differ by the laundry system and the detergents that you’re using to clean the clothing. There are different temperatures that you need to make sure you reach, and you need to [maintain] those [temperatures] for a certain duration,” he says. “You have to partner with the chemical company that you’re using for laundry and say, ‘I’m using this chemical. What temperature of water should I be looking for, and how long do I need to make sure I maintain that in the wash cycle?’ ”

Also see §483.65 Infection Control and the associated surveyor guidance in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services State Operations Manual.

Even when clothing is sanitized and good-looking, however, sometimes the owner of a garment is not readily identifiable. In such cases, Vetter has used a lost-and-found system, although Seipold says that communities are introducing a new routine based on their “neighborhoods” (hallways or sections). “We try to wash all of [one neighborhood’s clothing] together,” he says. “As we’re sorting it, if we do find something that’s odd—unlabeled, or maybe it’s a new item or an item that the label came off of—that narrows it down to one section, so we can say, ‘OK, this is a man’s pants, and there are only four men on this hallway. And these are a certain size.’ And then we’ll go and ask the certified nurse assistant, ‘Hey, do you recognize these pants?’ ”

Vetter staff members also might take a rack of unidentified clothing to community events, as appropriate, to see whether residents recognize garments, Seipold says.

How tech could help

Even with those procedures in place, room for improvement exists, Seipold says. “The system we have now is good, but it’s not infallible,” he says. “We survey all of our residents and all of our families, and one of the things that keeps popping up on our surveys is the fact that we’ll misplace clothing every now and then.”

Seipold hopes that technology holds an answer to keeping track of clothing, saving residents frustration, team members time and communities money. He is investigating the possibility of sewing RFID (radio frequency identification) tags containing residents’ names into their clothing. The plan is not fully fleshed out, but it also would include the use of an RFID tag reader during the sorting process.

“I hope we’ll be able to sort a little bit more accurately,” Seipold says, “but the big benefit behind using something like this will be that, when we’re returning laundry to folks, we will be able to bring a handheld scanner into the room and scan that person’s closet to make sure that everything in the closet is his or hers, everything in the drawers is his or hers. We will get a readout of everything that’s in there. And that should help with any kind of mistaken deliveries.”

By also placing an RFID reader near the door leading to the area where trash is kept, the technology could help staff members find clothing that residents accidentally placed in the trash or that a staff member mistakenly picked up with the rubbish in a resident’s room, Seipold says. An alarm or blinking light would alert staff members that the bag they are carrying contains something not meant to be thrown away, he adds.

Special RFID tags also could be placed on eyeglasses, hearing aids and similar items so they could be found more easily when they accidentally are mixed in with dirty laundry, Seipold says.

For equipment and detergent options, see the Long-Term Living Buyers Guide at

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