What’s worth waiting for?

I am heading to southwest Florida for a conference and was planning my route when visions of Disney World arose in my mind’s eye. Reminders about it are everywhere after you hit North Carolina on I-95. The closer you get to Orlando, the signs become more frequent and intense.

Say what you will about them, but the Disney folks are geniuses when it comes to one experience people hate having. They have figured out how to make waiting less annoying. Readers who have been there know that lines at Disney properties are never straight and long; they curve around buildings; they are often hidden behind objects or buildings and have interesting things to look at to reduce the feeling of having been in line forever.

A fascinating analysis of why, as the title claims, “waiting is torture,” is to be found in the August 18, 2012, New York Times article “Why waiting is torture by Alex Stone. This article and the research it synopsizes could serve as an instruction manual about why time hangs so heavy for older persons.

If you want an accurate sense of how waiting reduces quality of life for older persons, I highly recommend Wendy Lustbader’s brilliant portrayal presented in the chapter, “A desert of time,” in her book Counting on Kindness (1991; The Free Press). Lustbader writes so clearly yet compassionately about the effects of not being in control of time when one is dependent on others for care.

Basically, she says that waiting for help imposes other people’s rhythm on those of us who are dependent on helpers. She observes that our bodies may not be able to go along with other people’s timing. In the traditional long-term care setting, time is controlled by schedules that have been developed (and imposed) to meet the goals of organizational efficiency, not the rhythms of the elders. The result is that elders wait, and waiting emphasizes the inferior status of the person.

Research shows that waiting for something seems shorter when you are busy doing something (like scanning the tabloids or candy display in the supermarket checkout line) instead of just standing in line. When there is something pleasant at the end of the line and  something pleasant happens (like the line speeds up or the stated waiting time turned out to be less), people object less to waiting.

How can this be applied to the lives of elders? First, less waiting is better, but when waiting is necessary, doing something enjoyable while you wait makes it feel less like torture. How many of us have been at a long-term care setting where waiting, usually for the next meal, is the most common way to see who lives there?

What if we “Disneyfied” the wait by having interesting things to do or look at instead of gazing at blank walls or the staff passing by their way to do their jobs efficiently? Even better, what if we eliminated waiting by having great things to do that ended in time for the next meal at a time we helped select based on our historical preferences? Evidence suggests that people would eat better and there would be less waste.

As Stone says, “Its not the length of the line that matters, but what we think when we’re in it.” In this respect, Disney has a lot to teach us about human psychology and how to make the lives of elders more satisfying.

Think about it the next time you are kept waiting. You can vote with your feet if you don’t like the length of the line. Can the residents in your setting do that very normal, empowering thing?

Topics: Activities , Leadership , Staffing