The nursing home that got creative

In 1991 in the town of New Berlin in upstate New York, Bill Thomas, then a young doctor of just 31, who had previously really only spent time in A&E, took over as medical director of Chase memorial nursing home.

When he arrived he was dismayed with the reality of life there, despair oozed from every plastic plant in its plastic pot. Residents were sleepwalking through their bewildered lives, the home was devoid of energy and vibrancy. A kind of grey suburban train station before the end of the line.

Bill knew something needed to be done.

At first, being a physician, his idea was to look at the medication. Examinations followed, tests were carried out, meds were changed.

But change for the residents, who mostly suffered from various forms of dementia, was minimal and the cost of the drugs went through the roof.

How could he breath life back in to the place?

The answer was to get creative.

The problem with a care home like Chase was that it wasn’t awful, the nursing staff were kind, the place was clean etc but as Bill said “culture has tremendous inertia” and inertia ruled the corridors. No one had changed the way a nursing home had been run in, well, ever.

Like any creative he looked hard at his target market.

Bill got to know the residents, they had all been shopkeepers, housewives, factory workers, exactly the kind of people he had known while growing up, surely there was a better life for them than this soulless existence?

So his creative idea was to literally fill the place with life. His aim was to attack what he called the three plagues of nursing homes: boredom, loneliness and helplessness.

They would start with replacing the fake plants with real ones, ones that needed caring for.

Nursing home regulations allowed for one dog or cat. Thomas applied to the state for two dogs and four cats.

But he didn’t stop there, what was the quintessential sound track that signified life?

No, not the droning of daytime TV from a distant day room.


They bought 100 birds.

And what is a home without children and a garden?

Staff were given a creche and encouraged to bring their own children in, the garden was transformed in to an allotment.

In the movie version of this story I am sure the nursing staff and state officials will be portrayed as nay-saying disbelievers who fought him at every level. But the truth was, although skepticism was rife, and red tape challenged everything, everyone knew something had to be done and the excitement of trying something different captured their imagination.

Now, they also didn’t change it incrementally. They went large from day one. This was the whole ad break at news at ten. This was the two minute extended ad in the Superbowl.

In what Thomas describes as the BIG BANG they brought all the animals in on one day.

Pandemonium ensued but for the residents this was the best entertainment they’d had in years. (With a hundred birds came a hundred bird cages, all flat packed.)

There were of course issues with learning how to feed the animals, cleaning up after the dogs was ‘not on a nurses job spec’.

But soon they all realized that successful living went hand in hand with having a purpose. The residents and staff became joint housemates in the new home, sharing the responsibility for the pets and plants.

Instantly the place came alive and along with it, so did the residents.

One elderly male resident who had confined himself to bed, despite drugs and antidepressants, and effectively given up on life began to walk the dogs. Soon he began eating again, dressing himself again..three months later he moved back in to his own home.

In a test carried out by a team of researchers (every good campaign needs researchers) compared to a ‘control’ home the total drug costs fell to 38% of the comparison facility.

Deaths fell by 15%.

The study couldn’t say why.

That’s the thing about creativity, sometimes the why and the how can’t be assessed scientifically but the results are clear to see.

Pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box, these are all cliches we regularly spout but rarely actually do. But when we do, like the Chase memorial nursing home we can literally breath new life in to a brand.

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