For the last year, I have been working with a team of experts to find out how family members who take care of their aging parents feel about their current options for long-term care. We also wanted to know how these family caregivers would respond to information about The Green House® Project, which replaces traditional nursing homes with a much smaller alternative designed — from the bottom up — to look and feel like a real home.
It is a fact of life that many older adults will at some point no longer be able to take care of themselves and live independently. Their children are often the ones who have to make the difficult decision about how to care for their parents. As the deciders, family caregivers have a tremendous amount of untapped power to improve the options for aging Americans.
What we found, with the help of our insightful partners at Edge Research, was that women who have already made decisions about how to care for their parents were largely satisfied with the options they had. However, when we showed caregivers a 4-minute video about a Green House home, they become wildly enthusiastic about the idea. The majority of them actually said they liked the Green House approach “a lot better” than their current options.
These caregivers thought they were happy, until they realized how much happier they could be. It’s a reminder that the status quo often has an intense gravitational pull on the attitudes of our audiences, and how the simple act of showing something better can free their pent-up desire for change.
People only know what they know.
It’s really hard for people to imagine something they have never seen before. My kids — ages 2 and 4 — for the most part only know the world that my wife and I give them. They are perfectly happy with the healthy snacks and modest toys we provide. I say for the most part because my 4-year-old is starting to see the inevitably superior treats and toys that his pre-school friends have. He’s starting to ask us why he can’t have the same things.
That’s pretty much what is going on with the caregivers as well. They don’t know what they don’t know. Once they learn about something better, they will start asking their local long-term care providers to give it to them too.
People aren’t totally honest with themselves.
Just because caregivers told us that they were satisfied with their current options doesn’t mean they really are. In fact, we know from the focus groups we did with these women that they aren’t actually all that happy. They are on constant alert. They are worn out from driving back and forth to the nursing home, sometimes twice a day, to make sure their loved ones are not neglected. They feel a tremendous burden of responsibility and feel guilty — even when they know they are making the best decision they can.
If caregivers had said that they were not happy with their options, it would have meant they were letting down the people they love. They wouldn’t be able to live with themselves. It’s easier for them to say they are “satisfied.”
Show that there is a better way.
NPR recently aired a story about what researchers learned by reading the body language of Olympic medal winners. Silver medal winners appear more disappointed because they compare themselves to the gold medal winners. On the other hand, the bronze medalists look thrilled because they compare themselves to athletes who didn’t win anything. The lesson isn’t “Go for the Bronze!” It’s that people have a really hard time assigning value in a vacuum. Naturally, they look to make comparisons.
When we started our interviews and surveys with caregivers, they were likely comparing their own options with the horror stories they knew about nursing homes. And they were satisfied with their own choices. Then we gave them something much better to consider. By introducing Green House homes, we changed the comparison, and with it, their own attitudes about long-term care.
This is essentially what framing is all about: giving people a new comparison.
- Should we allow kids in poor neighborhoods to go to failing schools? Or should we use education as a way to break the cycle of poverty?
- Should taxpayers keep paying to send the same non-violent offenders back to prison over and over again? Or should we use those same dollars to help men and women who have served their time become productive members of society?
- Should we let the market decide who gets health care or who doesn’t? Or should everyone have the opportunity to see a doctor or nurse if they get sick?
Here’s the key: In order for framing to work, you have to paint a picture of something better and make it real. The charter school that gets all of its students into college. The program that replaces the ticket back to prison with a well-earned paycheck. The mom with cancer who can get care despite the fact that she has a preexisting condition.
Or the Green House home where elders still have their dignity and quality of life.
We may not be getting any younger. But when it comes to promoting social change, at least we’re getting smarter.