This Texas Tech student is taking her public relations skills and fusing them with her passion for senior care.
Melissa Hanna knew she wanted to work in public relations. When she started school at Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication, she dreamed of one day representing a Fortune 500 company.
Almost finished with her first year of college, COVID-19 brought things to a grinding halt. Melissa moved home to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and took classes online.
“I felt really aimless and frustrated,” Melissa recalled. “I hadn't been on campus long enough to strategize a career plan. The future felt hazy.”
Realizing she would be home for a while, she began looking for a job to make money in the meantime. She ended up accepting a care-management job at a senior living center.
“Working there, my career goals began to come into focus,” she said.
What started as a simple job quickly ignited a passion in Melissa.
“I worked in the dementia ward,” Melissa said. “I loved connecting with the people there and supporting them in their best and worst moments.”
One of the residents told Melissa about the era when women started wearing pants. Another, what it was like being at Pearl Harbor. There was another resident who meticulously had framed photographs through the years and had them displayed in her room.
“I loved going in there and seeing how photography had changed over time,” Melissa said. “To see one woman's life portrayed in various media was really interesting.”
But as many good memories of the residents as Melissa has, her time working at the senior living center opened her eyes to a real problem. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 6 people 60 years or older has experienced elder abuse in the past year. Elder abuse includes psychological, sexual and physical abuse, financial exploitation and caregiver neglect.
“Thank goodness I didn't see anything extreme where I worked,” Melissa said. “But there was one incident that made me uncomfortable enough to report it.”
She explained that while she was working with another caregiver, she witnessed them smacking the hand of a resident who was being combative.
“That's never acceptable,” she said, “no matter how exasperating the situation.”
When Melissa reported the incident, she wasn't sure it was taken seriously. She worried that because senior centers struggle to keep staff, they might look the other way if the abuse wasn't too extreme.
“It's horrifying how often this happens in our country,” Melissa said. “While unspoken, abuse seems to be ranked in terms of seriousness and that's heartbreaking because all abuse is serious.”
Melissa was not only processing this reality while on the job, but she also faced the challenge of communicating with family members during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, family members could come see their loved ones anytime they wanted. Then, once the pandemic started, senior living centers began restricting visits to outdoors, or restricting them altogether.
“In 2020, there still were no vaccines, so we had to be incredibly cautious,” Melissa recalled. “Many families understood this, and were even appreciative, but a few got really angry.”
She remembers some family members trying to sneak in the back door of the facility to avoid the front desk, and others who would yell at the staff.
The experience was a crash course in crisis communications.
“A part of me I didn't know I had rose to the challenge,” Melissa said. “I was able to diffuse the anger and refocus the conversation.”
With all the hands-on work she was doing with residents and their families, Melissa began to wonder if she should go into nursing. When quarantine lifted and she returned to Texas Tech's campus in Lubbock, she changed her major.
She took a few classes but realized she really missed public relations.
“I thought I needed to go into healthcare to make a difference,” she said, “but healthcare needs great communicators just as much as it needs great caretakers.”
She transferred back into the College of Media & Communication where she has studied ever since as a public relations and strategic communications management major.
Public Relations for a Cause
“My vision is to work in health care public relations,” she said.
Melissa also wants to work with advocacy groups that support healthcare needs in underserved communities – their senior citizen population and beyond. Through research for her classes, Melissa noticed the discrepancies in quality of healthcare across different communities.
She believes that strong communication campaigns aren't just about marketing but also changing policy. When backed up with research and aimed at the right stakeholders, public relations can avert crises before they happen.
“The reality of elder abuse has really tainted the perception of senior living centers,” Melissa said. “Which is understandable, but also sad, because some centers are wonderful.”
Melissa knows this is a sentiment many assisted living centers will have to address and change over the coming years. Constructing and framing positive messaging will take time and consistency, but she believes the narrative around assisted living centers can change.
And in terms of marketing, she knows there will need to be a shift in strategy.
“For the past few decades, the children of adult parents often chose senior living centers by calling on the phone and taking tours, that's it,” she said. “Now, older millennials are beginning to help transition their parents into these centers, and they make decisions very differently than their parents did.”
Melissa said older millennials will likely turn to social media or Google reviews first, rather than a phone call.
“Getting a healthy social media presence for these centers is a challenge, but one that could yield really great results if done right,” she said. “Social media can connect us more than ever before, and centers could capitalize on this by sharing content that makes the family feel closer to their loved one.”
While Melissa hopes she can be part of those projects, she also hopes her work in the industry will lead to big changes.
“Whether I work for a group of senior living centers or go the nonprofit route, I know I want to help people,” she said.
While her future once felt hazy, it's now coming into focus.
“As a communication practitioner, I know I want to serve this population of people. Senior citizens are too often seen as patients, not human beings. These are the people who built the world we now get to live in, and they deserve the utmost respect and dignity until their very last day.”