The Nicoya Institute

Change Culture by Creating Culture

One of the things that you'll hear us saying around here quite often is our talk of culture, or, more specifically, our effort to embed well-being into the "culture" of the communities where we're working. While it sounds good, this can often be a pretty nebulous concept. So, recognizing this to be the case, my goal here is to remove the ambiguity from the concept of building a culture of well-being, and then identify a strategy or two for actually doing the work of transforming culture. But in order to get there we'll have to answer a series of questions.

Why all the culture talk?

Whether you know it or not, your community has its very own unique culture, a distinct "flavor," if you will. I'm not speaking merely of the demographic makeup, though that certainly contributes to the community's culture. More comprehensively, a community's culture is comprised of a multitude of factors, from demographics to personality-types, which all contribute to this one intangible "thing." It can't be measured, and you can't quite put your finger on it. But, it's there. And you can "feel" it.

It's constantly humming, driving the pulse of the community. So, it goes without saying, the culture of a community is essential to the health and vibrancy of a community. We believe that this cultural component is a primary determinant of much, if not most, of what happens within the community, particularly as it pertains to the buy-in of a well-being emphasis, whether new or old. We talk often about culture because we see it as vitally important and central to our mission of enabling communities to flourish through the vehicle of well-being.

Why does culture need to change?

Over time, the experience that we've accrued within senior living has taught us many things. One of the kind-hearted, noble catch-phrases that we've come across, which typically circulates around the industry, "residents first, always," I fear has produced unintended collateral damage. For one, it seems to have contributed to the segregation that often lies between employee and resident, which we find largely unhelpful (you can read a bit more about that here). But, additionally, it has potentially served to create a culture of harmful self-sacrifice among our employees, with their long-term personal health being the "thing" that most often gets neglected. This noble pursuit has produced an unsustainable outcome -- our employees cannot continue to provide high-quality care for those they serve when their own personal well-being continues to trend in an unhealthy direction.

Before I move on, let me buffer the above paragraph a bit. To make a wide-sweeping statement such as this is unfair, I recognize. The above, that all employees within senior living are "guilty" of the these accusations, is simply (and obviously) not true. So, my intent is not to make universal claims, but rather to identify a concerning trend that we've seen. And, to be "guilty" of placing the needs of residents above one's own is, by no means, a shameful "guilt" -- if there's anything that we should be "guilty" of, may it be this. But we must find a balance in which the caregiver's personal well-being doesn't suffer as a result.

We must change the culture.

How do we change culture?

This question is infinitely more complicated than it may appear at first glance. As mentioned earlier, there are a multitude of factors at play here. But, we find a great deal of truth in an idea that Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, expounds on.

"The only way to change culture is to create culture."

   Andy Crouch, Culture Making

If this is true, and we think it is, our initial question, then, must change. We know how to change culture already -- we "simply" create new culture. But, how do we do that? Oddly enough, I think there's a great deal of overlap here with what we've written about in the past on the topic of joy and the expulsive power that it holds. And if that theory holds up, the task becomes clear -- we change the culture by creating compelling, creative, and in a sense, liturgical practices that feed and reinforce healthy behaviors, all for the purpose of planting well-being deep within the roots of the community and the people who live and work there. In other words, we create a culture that is more compelling than the one that's currently humming through the halls of our community.

What is a culture of well-being?

But, once again, this leads to another really basic question. What does all of this actually look like? The discussion, thus far, has mostly been "high-level," so here's our chance to "put flesh to it," as it were, and make it a bit more practical.

Like we stated earlier, culture is a difficult thing to "put your finger on" and even harder to measure. So, while it would be unwise to rigidly assert that "a culture of well-being is always this, and never that," a culture of well-being most definitely maintains certain identifiable distinctives. Here are a few of them.

Joy & Resiliency

One of the most distinctive attributes, if you will, of a culture of well-being is the marker of these two twin realities: Joy and Resiliency. One common explanation of the joy piece of the equation, which you may have heard of, is endorphins. Bodily activity, and particularly exercise, encourages the body to increase the production of this morphine-like substance made within the body -- this is a fact. And while this may be true, I'd like to suggest that there's much more to it than that. Joy and resiliency are indicative of a culture of well-being because that culture is made up of people who not only move bodily, but who gather, who celebrate, who smile and laugh, and who are full of life -- they maintain their sense of purpose (which we'll discuss at-length in a bit). I call joy and resiliency twin realities because an individual's joy fuels their resiliency and vice versa. This joy isn't a shallow, fleeting feeling. It is a deeply rooted disposition.

And so, these characteristics are inherent in any culture where well-being is planted within its roots.


Full of life. I don't know how else to describe what I mean by vibrancy than to use this phrase. A culture of well-being housed within a senior living community is one that is energetic, outgoing, upbeat, and lively -- vibrancy.

Purpose & Belonging

Because we're convinced that well-being is holistic, we believe that there is a social and spiritual component, among others, that contribute to our overall well-being. A healthy sense of purpose and belonging lends itself to being well, both spiritually and socially. Thus, the overall culture of the community, when it has well-being written into its DNA, produces in its inhabitants a sense of purpose and a real sense of belonging. Practically speaking, this looks like people gathering with others in the community and building deep friendships, having meaningful conversations, and serving one another, etc.

The "It" Factor

Finally, the "it" factor. This final attribute is not something that you can really program for, rather it's the result that we all strive for when implementing cultural change. Have you ever walked in the front door of a senior living community and been confronted with a tangible, positive feeling? Employees are smiling and positive. Residents are engaged and interactive. The feeling that this produces, that's the "it" factor. It's the result of a lot of hard work, great leadership, and a healthy culture.

Having highlighted these few distinctives, let me mention something additional so that it doesn't go unnoticed. If you look at the above list, what you don't find are physical attributes of those who participate in a well-being program. So often when we imagine a community of people who are serious about health and well-being, we imagine a group of spandex-wearing youngsters feasting on their kale-infused protein smoothies after a peculiarly-long run. And maybe this is one way that a culture of well-being may manifest itself, but this is not at all what I'm describing here.

What I want to convey is that a culture of well-being, particularly within our senior living communities, is above all a culture of life -- vibrant, beautiful life.

Create Culture by Casting a Compelling Vision

So, how do we create a culture of well-being? I think we start by casting a compelling vision, by telling a story, if you will. A vision or a story that involves joy, and health, and friendship, and purpose, and vibrancy -- we cast a vision of full, vibrant life. And then we make an invitation. We invite men and women and communities to participate in this story, and then we walk alongside them to spur them on towards this full and vibrant life: We call this the Nicoya Lifestyle. And, little by little, we watch as this culture takes root.

This is how cultures are built.