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Executive Suite: Karen Brannen, Setauket

Karen Brannen, chief executive of Jefferson's Ferry Lifecare

Karen Brannen, chief executive of Jefferson's Ferry Lifecare Retirement Community in Setauket. (April 30, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

As chief executive of Jefferson's Ferry Lifecare Retirement Community in Setauket, Karen Brannen must answer to the needs of 400 aging residents while training staff to be both efficient and compassionate.

In her years serving in the Army and as a hospital administrator at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Brannen, 57, learned the importance of a firm chain of command, but she says she allows staff the freedom to offer creative solutions to keep residents happy.

"I wanted to be able to hire the best employees and to be the employer of choice," she said. "It doesn't cost a lot of money to do that if you treat people the right way."

In 2010 the not-for-profit facility, sponsored by Mather Health System, was named one of the top 10 employers in the state by the Society for Human Resource Management.

How do you train your caregivers?

We teach staff that we are not health care, we are hospitality services: Say 'hello' to everyone you see. Tell people you like what they're wearing. We do not tolerate any sort of negative behavior. We teach people to put themselves in the other person's place. For example, some people are very lonely or they may be frightened or confused, and some people will call the front desk every 10 minutes asking what's for dinner tonight. Staff doesn't say, 'Check your menu,' they very politely tell the residents what's for dinner.

How do you accommodate someone who's frail without insulting them?

If someone needs their meat cut because maybe their hands shake, we cut it in the kitchen. We treat them all like they are independent and give people the level of decision-making that they are capable of making. Even if they have dementia, you can hold up two socks and say 'Red or blue?' The key is to listen .?.?. and to say, 'I understand this is a concern. What can I do to make it better for you?'

Why is your facility participating in research on the importance of touching and hugging?

The program is called Embraceable You. When you're serving coffee, maybe you touch someone's hand as you're handing them the cup, or you could touch someone on the shoulder. I think what we're going to see is the residents who participated are going to report being happier and having less depression.

How do you choose staff?

We look for someone who's going to be a good cultural fit. [We do] first interviews, second interviews, sometimes meetings with other supervisors, sometimes a lunch with other members of the organization, depending on the position and how difficult it is to replace someone in that position. We don't like replacing staff, so we try to do it right the first time. We don't want anything negative to happen to the culture.

What's the best way to think of an aging person?

We tell our staff, 'These are not little old ladies and little old men.' These are people who look in the mirror and they go, 'I can't believe that's me .?.?. I can't believe I'm 90 years old. I still feel like I'm 20 in my brain.'


NAME: Karen Brannen, chief executive of Jefferson's Ferry Lifecare Retirement Community Inc., South Setauket.

WHAT IT DOES: Provides housing, programs, services and health care to people 62 or older, including independent-living apartments and cottages, assisted living and skilled nursing. Residents contract for housing and health care for the remainder of their lives.

EMPLOYEES: 131 full time, 182 part time.

REVENUE: $22 million.

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