'Everything begins with Knowing and Honouring each Resident’s Story'

“Everything begins with our residents’ stories,” says Heather Luth as she considers the future of support for people in long-term care and retirement settings, especially those living with dementia.

As the director of recreation at The Village of Wentworth Heights in Hamilton, Heather spent much of her time trying to delineate the typical recreation calendars that tend to dominate programming. She promoted the quest to find balance within recreation calendars leaving room for structure and spontaneity, understanding that like people’s individual stories, their desires for leisure and recreation are unique. Heather advocates for “meaningful moments of purpose and leisure throughout the day that might be planned, but also might happen organically with the proper support.”

But in early 2016 Heather took on a different role with Schlegel Villages as the dementia program coordinator, prompting her to deeply examine another important reality affecting a majority of the population living in long-term care and a large number of those in retirement settings. As 2017 dawned launching of a month of Alzheimer’s and dementia awareness, Heather reflected on what she learned in her new role within the team assessing the organization’s dementia program, and she considered the year ahead.

It was important that before any resources were directed towards a new approach to serving people living with dementia that Schlegel Villages understood exactly what it was currently offering. That’s where Heather began her journey. She had “time to be reflective,” she explains, “whether that was with team members, with families, and even more importantly, with residents and I certainly found that the most important part of my visits started to become getting into each neighbourhood and spending time trying to share the lived experience of our residents.” 

The need to understand the individuality of each person by knowing their history has only become more clear in Heather’s eyes during the past year.

She helped residents get to bed some nights and other days she sat with them in dining rooms and living rooms. She even had the privilege of observing a meaningful spa experience and collectively, all of these moments helped shape her understanding of where each neighbourhood and village is doing well and where improvements can be made.

“It was interesting to be able to put yourself in a different pair of shoes or slippers to see what that might have felt like and I think that certainly changed some of the priorities, for me – it changed some of the things that I see as being really and truly important.”

That experience prompted Heather to consider different possibilities for her fellow team members to have the same opportunity for reflection by “helping our team members to find ways to share the resident experience.”

“We believe everything begins with knowing and honouring each resident’s story,” she says. “That is non-negotiable.” She says she couldn’t be happier to be part of a dynamic group working collaboratively to create a framework for the organization’s dementia program, centred in large part around this concept. This framework, she says, “begins with the guiding principles and is then further explored in the areas that we are focusing on: dining and hospitality services, language, engagement, documentation and clinical care and support services, caring practices and supportive design. 

“This is a lofty goal for us to work on” Heather adds, “but we have a great group of committed team members, family members and residents who want to work on this together and I am grateful for the direction and support they bring to the work we do.”