The Director of Nursing at Carol Woods Retirement Community was recognized as a nurse leader in the field of long-term services and supports at the LeadingAge Annual Meeting in Chicago on November 7, 2023. This article was originally posted September 26, 2023.
Melanie Johnson, RN, will receive the 17th Annual Joan Anne McHugh Award for Leadership in Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) Nursing at the LeadingAge Annual Meeting in Chicago, November 5-8. The McHugh Award recognizes a director of nursing (DON) who creates a supportive and engaged workplace environment by displaying excellent leadership skills while managing nursing staff and direct care professionals.
Johnson is DON at Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill, NC. She oversees the life plan community’s assisted living and skilled nursing areas, which support up to 120 residents. Johnson supervises four nursing coordinators, a staffing specialist, a MDS/admissions coordinator, 20 registered nurses (RNs), 16 licensed practical nurses (LPNs), 52 certified nursing assistants (CNAs), and 26 medication aides/techs.
Described as a “mama bear for her staff,” Johnson is known as a good listener and an energetic team player who never asks RNs, LPNs, and CNAs to do anything she would not do herself. She’s widely respected for her willingness to “jump on a med cart, answer call lights, feed residents, or any other nursing thing you can think of,” according to one CNA. When Johnson asks nurses and CNAs to stay overnight, she stays too. When evening and night shifts can’t be filled, she puts herself in the rotation.
Johnson gets high marks for showing appreciation for her staff, whether she’s fighting for increased compensation, nominating a staffing specialist for “OnShift Scheduler of the Year,” or making holiday ornaments for everyone on her team.
A self-described “no-nonsense” leader, she holds her team members to a high standard, encouraging them to pursue education and training, and occasionally giving them the push they need to take advantage of new opportunities.
Always Pursuing New Challenges
Having sought out new challenges throughout her career, Johnson is a role model for team members whom she encourages to apply for new positions or earn new certifications and degrees.
“She is not afraid of challenges and leads people by her example,” writes Olga Glushko, RN. “It strengthened me to follow her steps and start working on my education.” Adds Lead CNA Crystal Perry, “If it wasn’t for her, I would have let my self-doubt hold me back.”
Johnson began her health care career as a patient transporter at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Medical Center, but that job didn’t last long. She was soon working as a unit secretary, surrounded by “a great group of nurses, CNAs, and physicians” who convinced her to enroll in nursing school. After studying nursing at the local community college, Johnson worked as a hospital RN and then pivoted into aging services, eventually becoming DON at a stand-alone nursing home and a life plan community. She’s been DON at Carol Woods since 2018.
Along the way, Johnson has always been willing to follow new pathways, no matter how daunting they first appeared. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing while working full-time at Carol Woods. During the height of the pandemic, she participated in the LeadingAge Leadership Academy, an experience, she says, that “really had me go outside my box.” This fall, she’ll begin an Administrator in Training program with support from Carol Woods.
“It’s about always wanting to learn as much as I can, and to give as much as I can to long-term care,” she says.
Johnson believes her success as a DON is rooted in her ability to be authentic in her relationships with team members, residents, and family members. Fortunately, she says, Carol Woods offers myriad opportunities to develop strong relationships with all three groups.
She likes getting to know Carol Woods residents long before they need nursing home care. “We get to know them on their best days, so when they’re having their worst days, we can take really good care of them,” she says.
Similarly, she deliberately seeks out family members and spouses of new residents so she can develop strong relationships early in a resident’s stay. “If you’re talking with [families] when things are going well, then when something’s difficult for the family, or for us, it makes those conversations easier to have,” she says.
All on the Same Team
Johnson works hard getting to know her team members, showing them the appreciation they deserve, and letting them know “we’re all in this together.” She’s successfully gained salary and shift differential increases for nurses and CNAs, and developed a creative scheduling system that lets them work eight- or 12-hour shifts. She’s also very intentional about expressing gratitude for team members’ hard work, offering them support and flexibility when needed, and regularly seeking their input.
For example, Johnson created a simple, paper-based tool that helps CNAs report skin integrity issues while making it easier for nurses to follow up on those reports. Before implementing the system, Johnson sat down with CNAs to ask their opinions and get their buy-in. She credits that exchange with the intervention’s success.
“I always want to make sure our CNAs understand that we value their voice and their opinion,” she says. “They’re the ones who are on the frontline. They know the most about our residents.”
Hope for the Future
Johnson says she’s hopeful about the future of aging services.
“I feel hopeful because we have to be hopeful,” she says. “The need for what we do will never go away. I do think long-term care is going to look a lot different. Our job is to be ready, no matter what the future looks like.”