What Elephants Can Teach us about Care Management

August 29, 2018 by Maria Buehler in Care Management, For Individuals, For Professionals, Guardianship

herd of elephants

“When I was a little girl, I was allowed to play with elephant figurines. But as I grew up and learned more about elephants and what they were, I learned how similar people are to them. Besides their sheer presence and being the largest land animal, they have many traits like humans. They are matriarchal. Well, that’s very similar to me so I can relate to that. They are extremely loyal and they’re all about family. They are extremely empathetic animals,” said Lisa Pettinati executive director of Intervention Associates (IVA). As I reflected on this interview with Pettinati, I began to realize why Intervention Associates was such a special place for care management and guardianship services. Like elephants, IVA is matriarchal, compassionate and empathetic, forming a family bond with their clients.


The work IVA does is expansive. Like the tough skin of an elephant, they take on complex issues related to home life—aging, mental health, and special needs, such as trauma brain or birth injuries. Or they may have to sink their large tusks into family matters regarding the public benefits system. Pettinati, sharing similar attributes, is very protective and supportive of her clients and team. Certainly, it takes someone who has a compassionate heart of a mother but also one who possesses her tough love. Pettinati makes this distinction as she distinguishes the heart from the mind of the work:

So when we’re working with very complex issues with people, it takes a lot of core intelligence and knowledge about the systems that we’re working in. We want to not just understand who the person is and what their needs are, but how do we best match those needs with what is available to them in our system. Not just social service system but whatever it takes.

It’s this do-whatever-it-takes attitude that sets Intervention Associates apart. Whatever it takes to create an environment of safety and well-being is critical to IVA and their clients.


Elephants are extremely empathetic creatures, exuding compassion. When an elephant in a herd is hurt, they have been seen touching one another with their trunks as a form of comfort. Though a compassionate-based approach is often used in social work, Pettinati emphasizes that their approach is tailored to the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of the client:

The work that we do is extremely complex in that every single case we take on is their own special case. We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. We have a very individualized approach to working with people. We work directly with those individuals as our clients. We work with their family members. We work with their support [system]. We work with their professional partners who establish what their needs are.

Piecing together a client’s life can involve many other individuals, such as estate planners, attorneys, guardians, psychiatrists, psychologists, for example. Together all of these people form a bond—a family.

Family Bond

Elephants are very family oriented. They recognize when a member has been absent or has fallen behind.  They acknowledge each other through vocalization and touch. In her work, Pettinati calls this family-like bond “sacred”. This care manager-client relationship operates like a family because the client finds value and acknowledgement in this “new herd” or community:

People trust me, they trust the other care managers with very, very personal information. We have a view into people’s lives that’s very intimate. That is, to me, almost like a sacred bond.

Healthy families operate on trust, compassion and empathy. Intervention Associates works hard to create this bond with its clients and professional partners.

elephant with tusk

There is a quote from the book The Other Side of Life by Jess C. Scott that states, “friends are the family you choose”. You may not get to choose your actual family members, but you get to choose your friends. Intervention Associates and its subsidiary partner Friends Life Care infuse their services with this sense of loyalty and camaraderie. Pettinati emphasizes that they don’t tell people what to do.  Instead, they help them identify what’s important to them and, then, help them find the resources they need.

At the end of the day, it’s really all about community—connecting people so they can not just survive but thrive in community.  Pettinati uses the word “crystal ball” in describing part of her work but in the sense of helping people to have or regain a bigger picture of their lives and a more positive outlook on life. It’s not just about planning for today but figuring out “what will that person’s life look like a year from now, five years from now, and what will their need be.”

Pettinati elaborates, “As we all age, we all have different needs.” So, projecting into the future is important in ascertaining those life essentials in order to prevent future problems.

Unfortunately, elephants cannot project into the future, but they teach you the value of connection. Elephants are known to show grief when a family member dies according to Africa Geographic, an online publication.

When they lose a family member, they mourn that family member and they comfort each other. Even years and years later they will come back to the place where their animal friend died, and they will stay there in tribute to that elephant.

The poet John Donne writes, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Just like the elephants, human beings are all connected. The suffering of humanity impacts everyone consciously or unconsciously. As John Donne pens poetically, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”.

Care management at IVA is not just a job or service. Pettinati describes it as a job that is her lifestyle.  It’s a lifestyle of caring for people and for the soul of the community. Communities can only be healed and strive healthily if members have people who will help them do so.

Care management and guardianship at IVA is not just a job or service. It is a culture backed with a history of caring for humanity.

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