How Senior Living Is Raising the Next Generation of Leaders

Senior living has come a long way in recruiting and raising good leadership.

From the rise of degree programs that are focused in senior living management to operators that have shifted their attention toward hiring practices and community building efforts among both staff and residents, the industry continues to grow its reach in recruiting and training people who come up through the business—and stay in it.

In part, senior living is getting better—at a lot of things. On the executive level, and across communities, a marked shift has taken place in the way senior living is delivered from the age-old “father knows best,” approach to today where working in senior living means embarking on a journey that takes place along with residents, says Kay Kallander, senior vice president of strategic planning, for non-profit senior living provider ABHOW .


Kallander was recognized last month in receiving the LeadingAge Award of Honor at the 2014 LeadingAge Annual Meeting in Nashville. During her near 30 years in senior living, she has served as a mentor and leader to hundreds of senior living professionals, and helped launch LeadingAge California’s EMERGE program for future leaders.

We sat down with Kallander to hear her thoughts on steadfast principles of working in senior living, how customer service and hospitality are reshaping the way newcomers approach the business, and why “we know best,” isn’t always the most prudent management platform.

Here’s what she had to say about developing the next generation of senior living leadership.


What are some of the key principles of working in this industry that never change?

Respecting and honoring seniors. That’s in a person’s DNA. You can’t pretend; you really have to respect and honor the people. That’s a key principle no matter where I have been in my career. If you start with that principle, everything else will cascade into place.

What are some of the principles that are unique to today?

We have moved from the original model or providing basics such as care, shelter, meals and safety. That was how long term care began a hundred years ago. What we see today is more of a partnership and a life journey. That old paternalistic attitude of “father knows best,” is gone today. Now it’s: How do we journey together? What are your goals? and How do we as professionals make them possible? That partnership relationship is really critical today and is different from how it was in the past.

It spans all living types. You can be in a very high end CCRC, very interested in your life journey, and that’s no different from someone in a limited income affordable housing community. I was visiting an affordable housing community in San Francisco the other day, and seeing how those passions and dreams are the same. The characteristics are consistent, even in memory care. We are not just there to take care, but to partner in their life journey.

Do you have a mantra, or any best practices you always stress to people whom you’re mentoring?

I start with assuming that everyone has a unique gift. This comes from a funny experience I had as a child, not more than 10 years old. There was a TV show where someone would stand with their back to a big map of the United States, and would throw a dart that would hit a city or town. In the next scene, they’d open the phone book and stop at a random name. They would then call on that person to find out that person’s story. The premise was: everyone has a story. And that has really impacted my career, both with residents or those I mentor.

Everyone has a gift, it just has to be unveiled. My mantra is: assume everyone has a gift.

Next, provide opportunities to explore where that gift comes to life. It may be through site visits, reading and providing other opportunities for that to become realized. Often times the mentee doesn’t know about the gift. Only through those experiences, they learn. So providing those opportunities is the second phase.

The best part of this mentoring is when you do that, the mentee is frequently surprised by what they learn. You can then link that surprise gift or talent to a need in the field and then watch them grow.

I have had dozens of people start in one place in the field, and move to succeed in another. One started in fundraising and is now the administrator of an affordable community in the Bay Area. Her talents were unveiled, and she became interested in affordable housing. She had worked in finance previously, and there was a nugget there. By unveiling those possibilities, that’s the other end of the story.

Assume those unique gifts, provide those opportunities and open that link.

Are you seeing more interest in senior living leadership from people entering the industry today?

In looking at 66 years of ABHOW, I have been looking at the history in quarters starting with the 20-year period from the 1940s to the 1960s. There are some characteristics that live in those cohorts. When I think back to the 40s, ABHOW was an early provider in the Western part of country with its beginning leadership characteristics that were based on ministry and health care, and and less focused on business. The idea was that somehow, things would be taken care of. Our job was to care for people and be attentive to health, safety, and well being.

Flashing forward, what I see today is different. We still care deeply to provide health care. But today’s leaders are more focused on customer service and hospitality.

That’s a bit different from the “we know best” approach in the past. Now, the customer is in charge and we are there to provide the support they need.

The resident is the expert in their life. Today’s leaders have to understand that residents have expectations beyond safety and security. They’re interested in lifestyle, purpose, and meaning. Those are skills a leader has to know today.

Then there are the business skills. Without margin there’s no mission. If we aren’t good businesspeople, we won’t be able to continue providing these services.

How does leadership in senior living differ from leadership in other industries?

I’ve thought a great deal about this. The difference is that we are very much in long-term relationships and we are often multigenerational in our relationships.

Before I came to ABHOW, I was a registered nurse in charge of an intensive care unit. The reality was that most of the patients within 24 to 48 hours were gone. Either they died or were transferred to another unit. I had 24 to 48 hours to develop a relationship, and to support the family. But in that short time, it was over and then they were gone.

In this field, my first job was as a director of nursing at Plymouth Village [in Redlands, Calif.]. What became very clear was these residents were not in that 24- to 48-hour time frame. We were going to be together for a much longer period. That was an “a ha” moment.

I would be with these residents for the rest of their lives. Some had been there for years already. That was a huge wake up call. I couldn’t just ‘out wait’ somebody. We had to find a way to be together. That was a huge moment.

People often ask: How is this work different from hotel work? In a hotel, your customer’s going to be gone in a couple of days.

In long-term care, you have to shift to know if there are problems, challenges, and joys. You’re going to be engaged for a long period of time. In the beginning, I found that a bit distressing.As I matured, I found it the most satistying part of everything I do. It really is about that whole person who is the expert in their life. How do we journey together, for example, when we lose a spouse? In this field, we know the spouse. We know the family.

You go through life, not just an episode. It’s hugely different from any other field.

Then this concept of multigenerational is very interesting. Not only do you know the resdients, but also their sons, daughters, grandchildren and sometimes great-grandchildren. In the beginning, this can be very overwhelming, but it is also very satisfying. You travel with the entire family.

You see it in the team members, too. A high school son or daughter may be hired, usually in the dinging room, to learn to be on time and learn to do customer service. You get to watch mom and dad keep an eye on their children and watch the generations with the residents and the team members.

That’s a great joy of being with ABHOW; people have children and raise their children in the field. I love that multigenerational aspect.

How does senior living confront the idea that “senior living’s not sexy”

It’s tricky. But the recession changed a lot of attitudes, and about jobs in general.

In health care, there were never enough nurses. Then the recession hit, and now the nursing schools are full with wait lists. It’s hard to get a job coming out. People began to see helth care as a job that had real security to it and a long career path. If anyone was smart, they see the increasing number of seniors ahead. Sexy or not, I think they became more focused on a career that could go the distance.

There are many jobs in this area beyond traditional health care. There are great jobs. From masseuse to activity director and lifestyle coordinators, there are jobs no one would have imagined. The sexiness is in finding the possibilities. In dining now, there are sous chefs. We’re building now a memory care community that will have demonstration cooking. If people start to hear about these things combined with the stability of the field, and key principles of honoring people, I think its better than sexy. It’s meaningful.

If you could change one thing about how senior living is perceived by the public, what would it be?

My wish would be that instead of the negative portrayals often associated with senior living, that people would understand the opposite—that in 99% of cases it’s care, commitment, competence.

As a CARF-CCAC accreditation surveyor, I have been to communities all over the U.S., Canada and Australia. When I step in and do a deep inspection, it’s almost universal how proud I am of what they are doing. I interview residents, families, and volunteers and others. When people have direct experiences they have a very different perspective.They are so grateful for the care and support the community provided after mom or dad passed away. They are appreciative of being able to get services at a higher level in the same place without having to start the search process all over again. They often adore the staff and want to give recognition.

But I don’t know how you change the perception of the larger public. As baby boomers are aging, many are having experiences with elderly parents and we have a cohort going through this life experience at the same time. As a public, there may be a stronger awareness of this field than there was in the past.

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

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