Derek Dunham

I started my conversation with Joe Gorman, Division President East at Morrison Living, thinking we would talk about the innovative culinary, wellness, design and environmental initiatives his company is implementing to support its 450 senior living clients across the country during this crisis. I came away realizing that simple human compassion is at the heart of the help Morrison is providing to its communities.

Derek: What are some ways you’re boosting morale at your communities?

Joe: When COVID-19 first began to spike, it was a difficult time for us emotionally, because we partner with a lot of large skilled nursing communities in New York City. What was happening there was devastating. It was a lot of conversations and constantly following up and working with team members. There was so much happening in the industry that was really challenging. We just wanted to know, “How can we help?”

We returned to what we’ve always done here at Morrison Living: We use food to help heal emotionally. My mother used to always say: “Sweetness takes the bitterness away.” I couldn’t agree more. We jumped in and quickly used some of our great programs to boost morale among residents and staff. Here are a few examples:

  • Special food themes. We created special ice cream dishes, mocktails and other treats for special days, and handed them out to people. We had an onslaught of great ideas we used, not just to help residents, but to boost employee morale as well.
  • Jack and Olive: One innovation we were able to quickly deploy was the Jack and Olive “handcrafted convenience” destination concept. We provided this to the heroes who have been working nonstop through COVID-19. This is an on-the-go concept featuring healthy options, artisan sandwiches and fun salads that are easy for staff to engage with.
  • Teaching Kitchen@Home. In this program, our celebrity chefs do live teaching classes in a kitchen, and we stream the classes to residents in their residences. We also have creative folks delivering the ingredients to some of our residents so that they can prepare the dishes as they follow along with the live stream.
  • New menus for meal delivery: As community dining rooms shut down during COVID-19, culinarians and corporate chefs had to focus on creating meals you could deliver to residents’ apartments. We helped them think through that process so they could deal with other emotional challenges they were facing.

How can we stay motivated during COVID-19?

This situation is something you never, ever thought you would experience in a lifetime. It just takes an emotional toll. You’ve got to stay motivated and stay cognizant of what’s happening. You’ve got to tap into empathy and a lot of other emotions that you didn’t have to use at this capacity before. It’s a new dynamic; it’s a new way to lead; it’s a new way to learn. So, it’s been very humbling to see the dedication of people in this industry. It’s just overwhelming to experience that. There are no words that can really describe it.

I think one of the best things we did is have open dialogue with team members to give them opportunities to talk about what they were going through. Early on, we had national calls with all our people every week. We not only did that, because we wanted to connect with our teams, but we wanted to make sure that they were okay. One example is Chef Jet, one of our celebrity chefs. He helped by sending out a video shout-out to our New York people.

You’re acknowledging what people are going through, listening to their challenges. Personal phone calls and connections go a long way.

How can we show empathy when we’re wearing masks?

All our associates understand that you’re supposed to greet people with a smile; you can make a difference in someone’s day by being the best part of their day. But physically, since we’re wearing masks, things have changed. That’s why we put together “compassion training”: to get the point across that, when you smile, even if you have a mask on, people can see your smile in your eyes. Whether it’s an associate or a resident or a client you’re smiling back at—these little things make a huge difference.

Can you talk about the power of food to heal during COVID-19?

Food has always been a passion of mine. As a child, I cooked with my aunt and my grandmother. I always found that people connected through food. Early on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I started in the sexy, exciting sector of hospitality: restaurants and hotels. But pretty early in my career, I found the senior market. I just fell in love with this environment and have been in it ever since.

The food philosophy that we instill in the people we work with, whatever the cuisine, is that tastes and smells evoke memories. When I taste or smell a dish, I remember when my grandmother made that special recipe, or I learned that certain technique. Our residents experience the same thing, so when they see or taste or smell our food, we’ve created an emotional connection. We have the opportunity to share love through food. That connection is even more important during these challenging times.

Read more about Morrison Living, and what it’s doing to support communities during COVID-19, in an upcoming blog.