Some years ago, I was managing a large not-for-profit aged residential care facility in Wellington. We offered a range of rest home, hospital and dementia level care, and we were operating in a very competitive market, a market increasingly dominated by private ‘for profit’ aged care providers.
A perennial question for organisations in the aged residential care sector – be they private or not-for-profit – is, ‘What makes what we offer distinctive?’ Even earlier in my career, while undertaking a business degree, I remember a marketing lecturer defining the three key aspects of ‘market distinctiveness’:
You have to be either the biggest, demonstrably the best, or the most innovative.”
Sound enough concepts in themselves, perhaps, but somewhat difficult in a sector (like aged residential care) where virtually every aspect of the service you provide is detailed in standardised specifications and contracts, and then audited to within an inch of a contract’s life.
But back to Wellington. Our marketing resources – such as they were – were somewhat tired and outdated in comparison with the more flashy offerings of the private providers encroaching on our ‘market’. Slick brochures featured sixty-year-old airbrushed American couples strolling hand-in-hand across a sun-drenched beach, obviously downloaded from some offshore internet photography ‘stock’. The irony, of course, was that older people in such obviously good condition would never meet the stringent criteria for entry into aged residential care in New Zealand. Retirement villages, possibly, but not rest homes with the level of care we were providing – nor, I would suggest, that provided by many of those using such imagery to promote their own aged residential care facilities.
At the time, the organisation I managed had a strong working relationship with Massey University’s school of nursing, whose students could fulfil some placement hours with us, under the supervision of our qualified nursing staff. It occurred to me that a logical extension of this partnership could be a collaboration with the university’s school of creative arts. One of the assignments that the third year arts students needed to complete was a photographic essay. The Head of School was happy to offer our facility as an option for any students who wished to take it up.
The class turned up en masse, and I explained the cunning plan their Head of School and I had concocted. For those who wished, we would offer free, unfettered access to the facility. With staff and residents’ verbal permission (and, later, written permission for any photographs chosen for publication) those students who took up the offer could wander at will, constructing a photographic essay of their choosing. All photos submitted for their essay would be made available to us for potential inclusion in our marketing material. I wanted real staff, real residents, authentically capturing the day-to-day realities of life in an aged care facility – not airbrushed Americans, languidly strolling down a beach, glass of bubbly in hand.
Over the succeeding weeks, six students spent time mixing and mingling in our midst. One student opted for back and white portraiture, capturing the absolute beauty of old age even in its sometimes harsh reality. Another student stayed overnight, photographing the staff at work over a 24 hour period. Day shifts versus night; staff handover; the solitude of working in such a place in the wee hours of the morning. Another student sat with residents in their rooms and asked them to talk about the few remaining items of their life they had managed to squeeze into their regulation-sized rooms: decades of life reduced to a few precious mementoes and photographs.
Six weeks later, the Head of School invited me to meet again with those students. They spoke about their work, and described the profound impact that the exercise had had upon them. I walked away with two large Esselite folders crammed with more than 300 photographs. The next week I, in turn, invited the two principals from the design and print company we had contracted to develop our marketing resources to view the photos. The images were laid out – sometimes two or three deep – across the large table in our boardroom. Without question, I had my favourites – staff and residents I recognised; photos that, for whatever reason, moved or resonated with me. But I deliberately chose to keep schtum. These two knew nothing about our staff and residents, and very little about the work we did and the care we sought to offer. They were, essentially, our market. Their task, then, was to gather up all the photos, take them away, pore over them and choose the ones that said to them:
This is what this place is about; this is why I think this is the place I would suggest to my mother that she move to …”
A week or so later they returned, bringing the draft folder they had designed to carry the information we needed to provide to prospective residents or their family. It comprised a collage of some twenty photographs that, clearly, had spoken to them, moved them. In fact, they expressed much the same emotions as had the students who had taken the photographs in the first place. And then one of them uttered a phrase that has remained with me ever since:
You know, looking through these photos has made me realise – it’s the treasures we surround ourselves with that remind us of who we are.”
That was it! That was our point of difference. That, in fact, became our by-line: The treasures we surround ourselves with remind us of who we are. That distillation of a life lived into perhaps no more than a dozen special possessions says so much about who we are, who we have been, what we hold most precious.
Exactly twenty years ago, during her time as Artist in Residence at Dunedin’s Ross Home and Hospital (which is celebrating its Centenary this year), Dunedin artist Janet de Wagt came to much the same realisation. Over that year she worked with residents, capturing in paintings, prints and woodcuts their own ‘treasures.’ One of these woodcuts (see above) was designed for a resident who had herself been an artist. In her wonderfully cluttered room she had retained not only some of her most precious paintings, but also her easel, her brushes, her paints. Nothing was going to separate her from them – not least the need to reduce her life to this regulation sized room! Her treasures continued to surround her. They remained, until her death, at the heart of her life.
Max Reid lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. He currently works for Kidney Health New Zealand.
On similar themes, read: