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Mount Saint Joseph Resident Care Manager Carrie Willekes says a sense of community in elder care is vital because not all residents have family or friends, so to create a community means “no one will be forgotten.”

“I don’t call it elder care, I call it living”

January 8th, 2018
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MSJ Resident Care Manager Carrie Willekes on the future of residential care and why she loves her team.

Carrie Willekes got her start caring for older adults when she took a Resident Care Attendant course right out of high school, at age 17. She was immediately touched by the people she cared for.

“I fell in love with it right away,” says Carrie, who attributes a close relationship with her grandparents and, by extension, her grandparents’ friends as a reason why she has always had an affinity for spending time with older adults.

“The different stages of growing old, these are our different stages of life, and as I experienced with my grandparents, these stages of life can be wonderful.”

Carrie, who holds a Masters in Nursing and also has certification in gerontological nursing, went on to work in both acute care and emergency care but residential care always remained a constant in her life and career.

She didn’t realize at the time, however, the impact that her first job would have on her.

The opposite of institutional

Carrie’s first job was at a care home that was, literally, a home. It was in a large house. The 21 residents were welcome to bring their own furniture from their own homes. There was a cook on staff but residents ate when they were hungry and meal preparation was shared by all. When Carrie and her coworkers ran errands, they invited residents along because it was, after all, their home.

In terms of residential care, this was about as far from an institutional model as you could get.

“These were the first few years of my career,” says Carrie, “so I thought this was residential care. I thought this was how it was done. And it made sense to me because it wasn’t that different from how I lived.”

It was at this early stage of her career that Carrie decided to go back to school. When she later rejoined the workforce, this time as a Registered Nurse with a larger residential care program, she saw that elder care was actually more like the institutional model we associate it with.

“There were lots of people sitting around in chairs without any stimulation and I felt a huge disconnect between my values and the environment I was working in,” says Carrie. “This was very tough for me. It even prompted a break from elder care and I switched to working in acute care for a time. I found I needed to get inspired in a different way.”

Fortunately, Carrie’s departure from elder care was not permanent.

Over the years, Carrie circled toward operations level work in order to be involved in decision making but always kept the hands-on side of her work that was nursing. She continued to think about how things could improve in elder care and how she could be a part of that change. During this time she also taught in a nursing program where she could motivate and inspire students to love a career in elder care.

With both her work and her teaching, she was bursting with ideas when, in 2017, a position opened up at Providence Health Care—a leadership position in residential care.

PHC comes calling

With an eye on this position, Carrie began researching Providence Health Care and was excited to read about the innovations that had been brought to PHC by Seniors Care and Palliative Services Corporate Director Jo-Ann Tait and her team, which operates six different sites across PHC.

“As I learned more about PHC and its values, I learned about what Jo-Ann had been doing,” says Carrie. “I learned about the Residential Care for Me and Megamorphosis projects and the move from an institutional model of care to a social one. And it wasn’t about renovations or a new building—you don’t need that to change the way you care for people—it was about feelings, relationships, emotions. It was about creating home-like environments where you could live as you always had. It was about comforts like food, celebration, family, friends, and engaging residents in all aspects of care and decision-making. Ultimately, it was about hearing what people wanted. I saw that Jo-Ann was there to listen, and that’s important. That’s why all of the group discussions and one-on-ones that were part of this effort were so valuable.”

In June 2017, Carrie joined this elder care leadership team.

Asking the tough questions

Part of the reason why so many eyes are on PHC right now, watching with great interest the innovations that are driving its work in elder care, is that this is a team that asks hard questions. Complacent they are not.

“How do you keep meaning in your life,” asks Carrie, “when you can no longer live on your own? How do you make your own choices when you find yourself in a system where personal choice is not driving that system? How does it affect you when you’ve had privacy your entire life and now you don’t? How is home still home—when you no longer live there?”

It is hard enough to ask such questions, questions about human dignity and the life experience itself, let alone answer them, but PHC has begun to do exactly that. A starting point, according to Carrie, is to understand the diversity of the population you’re caring for. Most of us, for example, will simply say “seniors” and consider it a group, a demographic, just another segment of society.

This is not the way someone like Carrie Willekes sees it.

“Older adults are not just one group,” says Carrie. “You have older adults who age well and those who don’t. Some embrace aging and are prepared for the transition to elder care and others are not. Some have financial resources, some don’t. Many people have no family, no friends, no one to be an advocate for them, while others are surrounded by love and attention. How do we meet the needs of all of these people who fall into all of these different categories? This is why a sense of community is so important in residential care. It’s so no one will be forgotten.”

Vision for the future

It is impossible to address such issues without vision, of which there is no shortage at PHC. One way Carrie Willekes is able to peer into the future is by simply looking in the mirror, and by understanding that the elder care we see today will not be the same as when Carrie finds herself in residential care.

“Although our residents receive excellent care, the current model of care is medicalized, it’s very prescribed and routine-based and this generation of older adults tends to be very accepting of it. But it will be different in the future. If I am in residential care, for example, I’m going to want an extension of my family home with different types of food accessible at all times. I will not be okay with eating at the same time every day. I am going to want my own bedroom and bathroom with all of my things. I’m going to want technology, privacy, and to be myself doing the things that I enjoy.”

Carrie smiles as her list of requirements grows, but this is not a person—or a generation—sounding needy or entitled. Different generations have different needs and expectations and this is yet one more driver in the personalized approach to elder care that PHC is adopting. Fortunately, people like Carrie Willekes and Jo-Ann Tait are not waiting to usher in these changes. They are doing it now, and to the great benefit of the residents they care for.

St. Paul’s Foundation is a proud supporter of elder care across PHC. To support residential care programs and be a part of the innovations currently underway, give to St. Paul’s Foundation now.

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Want to read more about the innovative work in elder care at Providence Health Care?

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