Christy HinkleTrue sunshine. Those are just two words used to describe Christy Hinkle, a long-time social services director who is known at Hillcrest Health and Rehabilitation in Corbin, Ky., for brightening the day of everyone she comes in contact with. Other words like compassionate, understanding, and loving are spoken.

While she previously worked helping youngsters in the federal Head Start program, her transition to working with elders was a natural one. “I was raised by my grandparents, so I always wanted to work with the elderly,” Hinkle says. “When I saw the position in the paper, I just applied. I really enjoy it.”

Her Biggest Challenge

That was back in 2011. Hinkle felt an immediate connection. But in the early days, she encountered one of her biggest challenges. “I would get really close to a resident, and then they would pass away,” she says. “I was nine years at my other job, and we dealt with the beginning of life. So, when I transitioned to long term care, the end of life was the hardest thing I dealt with.”

Since beginning at Hillcrest, Hinkle has faced her greatest challenge not only professionally but personally. About three years into her role, she lost her husband. “She was dealing with her own grief as well as that of her two young children,” says Gail Gibbs, administrator at Hillcrest. Gibbs points out that Hinkle’s role and faith helped her.

“She said that being here around the residents helped her get through each day,” she says. “She knew that our residents counted on her to be there to comfort them and keep them smiling, so she had to do the same in order to help them.”

Prior to working at Hillcrest, Hinkle lost her sister to cancer. “When I came to work here, I had not really dealt with her death,” Hinkle says. “Through dealing with the death of a resident, I was able to finally step back.”

By being there with a resident during the death process and then with the family as they were dealing with his death, Hinkle learned to cope. “This allowed me to see it differently and finally learn to cope with her death,” she says.

“Christy never falters with her smiles, positive outlook, and dedication to her residents and their families, while caring for and adapting in her personal family dynamics,” says Gibbs.

A Changing Role

Since her early days eight years ago, Hinkle has watched her role evolve. When she first started as social services director, she was also doing admissions. “The main thing was keeping my beds filled at all times,” she says. “This was hard to do plus doing the social work part of it because there are two different avenues there.” Since then, an admissions coordinator has been added so that Hinkle can strictly focus her time on the social service needs of her residents.

Broader Changes

Other guideline changes came from the state. “We went from utilizing bed and chair alarms for fall interventions, to no longer using them,” Hinkle says. “They were no longer recommended, and were considered to cause a more distracting environment. So we found other interventions for people that have a fall risk such as various calming methods, redirection techniques, visual cueing, etc. The guidelines have changed, so the interventions have changed.” 

Hinkle notes that the company has upped its quality improvement efforts. For example, “Now when we have a behavior issue, we put in an intervention like a therapy dog,” says Hinkle. “Or some residents have the electronic companion pets as companions. Or we pair them up with someone with similar likes such as playing cards or watching movies like they do.

“I think it’s great. More activities mean more people are happy with their lives. Residents are making friends and being more active, and they are learning to cope with things, and that’s what they need to do.”

All Types of Accomplishments

When asked about Hinkle’s accomplishments, Gibbs points to a number, and they all have to do with improving the lives of the residents. “Her ability to give to others and reach out in times of need is unmatched,” says Gibbs. Hinkle has done everything from pulling together furniture and setting up new residents’ apartments to filling up trucks with donated items for outgoing residents returning to the community. 

Hinkle uses the gift of her singing voice to entertain residents or brighten a special holiday dinner. She’s often at the piano playing and singing with a resident at her side. “There are no words to describe looking into the eyes of a resident who is struggling with memory deficits and seeing them shine with joy as they sing songs from a time that is so clear to them,” says Gibbs. 

Hinkle also organizes fun events for staff and helps her co-workers by finding resources when the need arises. In her work she touches the lives of employees, their children, grandchildren, or even their own elderly parents.

A Leading Role

At the heart of Hinkle’s role are discharges and counseling. When individuals come to Hillcrest for short-term therapy and go home, Hinkle works to make sure they will be successful when they do. “It’s about that person living at home independently with the most support that we can possibly provide for them with different agencies across the county,” she says. “So that’s a big assignment.”

The biggest part of her job, she says, is counseling. “There’s behavior issues in nursing homes that most people don’t realize,” she says. So Hinkle and her staff act accordingly. Sometimes there are couple assessments to be done to determine if residents are alert and oriented to make the decision to have an intimate relationship, or sex education, for example.

And then there are individuals who don’t want to be in a facility, but have nowhere else to go. In this case, she helps them learn to cope with what they feel is losing their independence. She focuses on helping residents understand their current needs and the positives of having help available to them.

“I talk to them just like how I’m talking to you, or anybody else,” Hinkle says. “I give them the same advice I give my children. Or my sister or my brother. I try to help them cope with the hand they’ve been dealt, and then make the best of it.” When asked how, she says she focuses on one thing—”getting the best out of life.”

Getting the Best Out of Life

“When they finally realize that this is where they’re going to be for the rest of their life or for a certain amount of time, then I say, ‘Let’s find something that’s going to make your life better while you’re here,’” she says. “’Let’s get the best out of life. Now that we know that this is where you’re gonna be, let’s figure out how to make it pleasant and memorable for you.’”

The best out of life is something different for everyone. But Bingo reigns as the favorite activity at Hillcrest. “Everyone likes something different, but the big thing is Bingo,” says Hinkle. “If you can get them started with Bingo or a church service or connecting and meeting new friends, that’s great.”

Sometimes the best out of life is another person. Hinkle tells a story of two patients with dementia. “One feels lost all the time, and one wants to hug everybody,” she says. “So I go up to them and say, ‘Hey there’s your long lost friend, she’s right there,’ They don’t remember. I reintroduce them every day, and then the one is no longer lost and the other one has purpose.” The two residents hang out with each other all day until it’s time for bed. And this seems to help them, she says.

Another resident wants simply to be heard. “He comes to my office and sits for hours on end just talking,” she says. “I’ll go on and be doing my charting or whatever I need to be doing, and he’ll be talking, and I’ll be listening to him. You’ve got to treat them as a person. They’re still human. Even if they have dementia or even if they have schizophrenia, they’re still human.”

Simple Words

The advice Hinkle has for others in the unique role of social work in long term and post-acute care is simple. “Always treat people the way you want to be treated,” she says. “Always see them as a person and not just a resident or client. You treat them as you would want your parent to be treated if they were in a facility.”

It’s not easy, she admits. “You’re not going to get rich off being a social worker. But if you really care about people and want to see life better for them, then social work is the way to go because you’re in their lives all the time.”

Hinkle was given the Professional Achievement Award for Supportive Care during the Kentucky Health Care Association and Kentucky Center for Assisted Living Quality Awards Banquet Nov. 21. Stay tuned to future issues for more interviews with individuals from all walks of care.