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144: Charles de Vilmorin

Charles de Vilmorin, Co-founder and CEO of Linked Senior, discusses resident engagement and the impact Covid-19 is having on wellness directors, the Old People Are Cool give back, and #ActivitiesStrong which is an initiative to acknowledge, educate, and empower activities directors.

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Lucas: Welcome to the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. Another exciting show about resident engagement and a bunch of other things. We’ve got a good friend on the program today. We want to welcome Charles from Linked Senior. Welcome to the show.


Charles: Hi, good morning guys.


Lucas:  It’s Great to see you. You know, Josh this whole year, it’s like we haven’t been able to go to our conferences. We haven’t been able to see our friends like we’re normally used to. And you know, Charles, it’s great to see you it’s been awhile. I think the last time we were together was at an industry conference and we were having a mastermind dinner and you had your “Old People Are Cool” swag and everybody was loving it. Josh has his “Old People Are Cool” shirt on this morning. And so we’re representing, we’re really glad to be able to talk to you. 


Charles: It’s really good to be here. 


Lucas: So give some of our listeners that don’t know you a bit of your background and how you got into senior living.


Charles: Sure. I think probably the best way to say it is that I’ve never been scared of old people, right. So it was always super close to like older adults and my family and my life. And I was born and raised in France and I came to the U S in 2003 in Washington, DC, where I live now. And worked in consulting and I happened to do my thesis on nursing homes for Georgetown. And so I’m spending a lot of time in these communities and realizing one; how much I like being with older adults. Right. And also how much there was potential to improve the quality of their life. That’s how the first idea of my company, Calling Senior, started. That was, gosh, the very first idea. It was probably like in 2006 or 2007. And then yeah, it’s the thing where you put your finger and the whole body goes in and then I sucked into it and I just love it. Yeah.


Josh: Well, Charles, so you know, thinking back, gosh, I’ve known you since early on in my career, you know, over probably close to 14 years ago. And we met at a conference for activity professionals, which many people in our industry may not know that there’s this huge, very organized group of life engagement, life enrichment activity pros that organize nationally in a conference. And that’s where we met. I think you, you even recalled in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And so I became familiar with you and was intrigued for a lot of reasons, but your thought leadership on resident engagement through technology.I can remember back then, Lucas, that was something that this is when Charles got involved in doing technology for resident engagement. To me, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but I can remember my first boss, my first mentor. This was back to give you a perspective when I remember saying, Hey, you know what? I think our community should have a Facebook page. And I remember my boss saying that social media stuff will never go anywhere and would not let me have a Facebook page. And then I met Charles, a guy from France with a thick accent and brilliant, and a redneck talking to this guy. And he’s telling me about all this technology he was doing. It was blowing my mind, but since then we’ve had a great friendship and senior product evolve and serve the industry. And it’s so awesome. But you know, one of the things I will also want to talk about is how you guys have really given back a lot to the industry and created some programs and things to rally the industry around resident engagement. So for me, that started by jumping on the bandwagon with the “old people are cool”. Tell our listeners a little bit about why you started that, how that started.


Charles: Yeah. So thanks for sharing that background. You know, what we’re passionate about is what you said, which is engagement, right? We are a resident engagement company. And so some of it, some of what we do is technology, but it doesn’t stop there at all. Where we ultimately believe that as the deepest core, we believe that, the pursuit of purpose, right? The ability to connect to meaning, we believe that that is a basic human rights, right? So it’s a basic human right to be able to connect to what is meaningful to you to find purpose every day. And I think that if you look at the older adults, especially residents in senior living, you know, what’s missing for them to get that right. To find purpose every day. And so, you have these very passionate staff members that sign up for jobs where they’re all about engaging the older adults, but then they are blocked because of different reasons. One, they use it all on paper, hence the technology. Two, that the job itself isn’t really valued a lot, you know, it’s changing now, which is good, but still, you still have a lot of organizations that don’t truly value that position. And three, what’s the biggest challenge for our industry?  I like to think one of the biggest challenges of our society despite COVID right now, right? 

Like generally speaking is the fact that we truly don’t respect the older at all enough. We are a society. And I say, we, I happened to be French and it’s the same thing in France so I’ll just say we collectively. We don’t value the older adults as much as we did in the past or other countries in the world. And I think there’s a lot to be said that like, I like your t-shirt of course, and we have these stickers, you know, in the end, all people are cool. But they’re not better than anyone else. Right. They are old, they are cool like anyone else basically, does that make sense? So in other words, it’s an initiative that we started prominently to engage in conversation the same way you have when you walk around with your t-shirt to your board and say, Hey, I like your t-shirt. Well, that is exactly the intention, which is to create connections, discussions, and maybe a little bit of friction and disruption, and yes they are people like anyone else, hence they’re cool like anyone else.


Josh: Well, I’ve loved it. And again, I will probably say my most worn piece of swag and my most commented on no matter where I am and no matter the age, young people, old people, everybody notices it. And it’s such a great initiative. You know, one of the other cool things is, it was a no brainer for me when you guys started this, because it was really a labor of love, not only to drive resident engagement and awareness and kind of change the perception of older people and how we view older people. But it was a give back. And I know when I started buying the swag, and I think even now when people purchase these things, it goes towards you know, Alzheimer’s association and helping you know, that cause. So what a cool thing. So take us now on a journey, you know, that started several years back. Take us through where you guys have journeyed, as we all have through this year 2020. It’s been interesting, most organizations have had major pivots but there has been a massive focus, which is probably a great thing, a great outcome of a negative situation on resident engagement. And there’s been this light cast on how much better we need to do as an industry on resident engagement. How have you guys responded to this year in what you do? And tell us a little bit about that.


Charles: Yeah. it’s been tough, like honestly, it’s  just been super tough. So, you know, the background is a lot of our work. A lot of resident engagement work is about fighting social isolation. And we’ve known for years now that it actually is a bigger risk to healthy aging than obesity. We also know that social isolation is like, it can be as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So we’ve always known we were fighting in this. We’ve always known that there was a greater good as well, but then when COVID hit, obviously it changed a lot. And I think people tend to forget that planet earth, like humans in general are just affected by COVID-19, but everyone on earth is affected. But probably the one thing that people don’t really bear in mind is the fact that the one industry with the education like schools, but the one industry that’s really kind of disrupted the most is our industry. Like the senior living industry. What we are getting through as an industry is a huge challenge. And when it comes to resident engagement, it’s probably one of the disciplines in that industry, right after infection control that is getting through the deepest changes. You know, I can give you one figure where in mid-October right now there’s a report that just came out two week ago that says that 80% of residents have not had a visit from the outside since mid-March right. 80%. And so the degree of isolation is, is huge. And so what we’ve done at Link Senior, when COVID hit mid-March, we were like, well, what can we do? Like, what can we do right now? Like, pause, everything, stop. What can we do? And we started doing, we did two things that were, actually three things that were successful. 

One is we started thinking about how can we give our product for free? So we opened most parts of our platform right at the end of, if i remember actually it was on March 28. And we allowed people to use most of the modules for free. And I remember talking with my CTO and we were like, well when do we end this? Like, you know, we’re for profit, heck we need to make money at one point. And he was like, listen to us just don’t worry about it. Just pick a happy day for people. And I was like, well, what happy date for Americans? Because I’m French. And he was like, well a happy date is July 4th. Like that was mid-March right. And so we were like, okay take the product for free until July 4th, like we literally had no idea that this thing will carry on until even today, right. And so we did that and we had hundreds of providers sign up. So that was a cool way of trying to help the industry. 

The second thing we did is that we, within our platform, allowed live performances. So one of the biggest problems is that these communities are isolated and blocked. And so through our platform, since July, we stream four events a day for no additional fee. So like music performances, exercise mindfulness. So that’s been cool and been really helpful. And I think that the thing that we’re the most proud of is that we started a big initiative called Activities Strong. Which is a little bit like “old people are cool” in the idea that it’s a platform to acknowledge, educate and empower activity and life enrichment directors. And we were doing webinars before we doubled the amount of webinars we do now. And we have anything from six-seven to 1100 people show up on these bi-weekly webinars. And it’s been fun. Yeah. So that’s what we did. And that’s what we sold there and actually.

Josh: What an amazing journey. So Lucas, one thing I want us to just not Charles just mentioned it very quickly and very humbly. But one of the things that you and I have spoken about so much throughout the last six or eight months is how much our industry has come together in great ways from the partners like Charles to the industry, literally giving away what he makes a living for to help the industry during a tough time, to keep the residents engaged, how providers, how the healthcare heroes we’ve talked about a lot, have risen above and beyond the norm so quickly. I mean, they’ve had to do this very quickly to try to keep the residents engaged. And so, Lucas, I know you even in your day job, your business, were at a point where you weren’t allowed for a short amount of time or a few months to go into the communities as there weren’t really allowed any visitors.

What’s been your perspective on seeing folks like Charles kind of rally around these providers. 

Lucas: Yeah, it’s so important. I mean, if you think about senior living right now one of the biggest value propositions is that it fights social isolation. It is the answer. It’s the cure for social isolation. And there’ve been so many months that to charles’ earlier point, they just haven’t had a visitor. And you know from my day job, we are in communities  going through and doing work in a very safe manner. We have zero interaction with the residents, but you know, there’s just the sense that I feel as I walk through the job site in the areas that we’re working. And I just have this kind of like, you know, pit in my stomach, just thinking, gosh, when are they going to be able to have their families back? When are they going to be able to see their loved ones and get back to a sense of interaction? It’s just months and months on end. So this conversation, I think, is a very important one. 

Josh: So Charles maybe a couple other things as we are starting to round out the show a little bit. But tell us a little bit about how you feel, what are some positives that could come out of, what to the general public is a bad situation this year? Lucas and I would  like to ask all of our guests this question, because, you know we feel like in tough times our industry has risen to the challenge and there’s been some cool things that have happened where there’s some great stories as we refer to as love stories that have happened in the industry of people going above and beyond. But is there anything, as you’re looking at the forecast of the future of senior housing that you think we will look back and you will say, you know what, that was a mark in the industry that things started changing. And that there were some good things that have come out of that. Is there anything that you can see like that?

Charles: Yeah, there’s tons. I could sit the whole day here today talking about these. Yeah, you know to Lucas’ point; I think the first thing first, one thing that’s really true is how unfair the media in general has been with industry. Right. I think that’s really important to bear in mind, but on the other hand has been amazing stories. You know, I’ll just name them by their first name, but I know of two corporate people when COVID hit late March and early April, COVID hit the communities hard in Illinois and Toronto. And so their names are Jennifer and Miriam, and when COVID hit, you know the staff were like, I can’t do this, I don’t know what it is. I have older adults in my life, in my house; and so they quit. So both Jennifer and Miriam, they went and worked in these communities, you know, 20 hour shifts and both of them contracted COVID right.

So you have these corporate people that suddenly are taking frontline jobs, kind of securing safety for older adults. And I think that to Lucas points; our industry is about social isolation being better than the home setting for sure. And I think that these stories, you know, everybody’s going to remember that, right? This is the work of heroes. And personally, I mean, apart from hospitals, I don’t know any environments where you have so many of these stories where sometimes it’s crazy to think about it, but sometimes it’s even like the know right. And I find that just purely amazing. You know, there’s something else I would share, which is every two weeks with these webinars, we do surveys. So we collected a lot of data on like sentiment. And I can tell you, one thing is 91% of activity and life enrichment directors believe that we’re going to get out of this stronger. And I find that amazing because as tough as things are, and they truly are. I mean I haven’t been in the community since March, but as tough as things are, they’re all in. And yeah, we’re going to get out of this and it’s going to be stronger. And I think I’ll probably leave it with this last thing. Which is, I think that the one winner of this pandemic in our industry is going to be engagement, by far. And I’m proud to be working with these people every day. It’s an honor. And I can tell you that every single time I talk to them, I thank them for their time, and I’ll tell them how much it’s an honor to be able to interact with them.


Josh: That’s so cool. Well on the resident engagement topic here, I believe, and you explain it one more time to me and Lucas, but you guys have helped with sort of developing this tool that helps communities understand how they’re doing as kind of a benchmark on resident engagement. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Charles: Sure. So with Activity Strong, this platform that we started in March, it kind of grew into a very successful thing, right? Like just the platform. And what we did is that we started partnering with the NAP Association that you referenced to and other leaders. And one thing that we know for a fact is that it’s just very difficult to measure engagement, right? So you have multiple communities, what’s the best, how do you measure, how you support them? And so what we developed is the first of its kind, self-assessment tool. So think of it maybe as you know these IQ tests you have online, we just go in. And so the REIS, which is the Resident Engagement Index Score, is a 25 question free assessment for organizations to go in and assess themselves on how good they are at resident engagement. So one, they can create goals on areas of opportunities, but also celebrate success. And the whole idea is to give tools to the industry so they can benchmark and grow something that is going to grow, but hopefully make it manageable for them, with the end idea that  when you measure things start to improve. So that’s the goal.


Josh: I love that. Well, I know our listeners are gonna want to connect with you, Charles. If they’re not already connected to you, connect with Linked Senior, connect with “Old People Are Cool” and connect with your latest resident engagement platform that you’ve developed for the industry. And I know Lucas, we’re going to connect Charles to all of our listeners in that way.


Lucas: Absolutely. To our listeners, thanks for taking time to spend with us. And Charles we’ll definitely connect with everybody in our show notes. You guys have a great Facebook presence. I know that you’re on Instagram as well. So we’ll put all that in the show notes. Charles, thanks for your time today. 


Charles: Anytime. Thanks, it’s a pleasure to meet with you guys. 


Lucas: Absolutely.  And to all those people that we consider our heroes out there just know that we’re rooting for you. We’re thinking about you and we’re praying for you. Keep up the excellent work in this industry that you’re doing. It really does matter. And thanks to everybody for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

144: Charles de Vilmorin