Senior living communities are in constant reinvention, looking for ways to improve operations, strengthen relationships with residents and employees and plan long term for future growth.
This is something The Admiral at the Lake, a Kendal Corp. continuing care retirement community in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, knows well. It has gone through several reinventions throughout its 154-year history in The Windy City, to reach its current incarnation as a high-rise CCRC with Lake Michigan views. Now, the community is starting another new chapter.
In 2017, the community refinanced a $202.4 million bond package, resulting in $3 million in debt service savings this year alone, with further financial benefits in future years. Fresh off that, the community engaged in a strategic planning process and has just released a new plan, outlining critical areas of focus for the next three-to-five years.
The plan addresses many of the trends and pain points that senior living communities are facing nationwide, including staffing challenges and tech investments. Most importantly, it includes a commitment to fostering resident wellness through more proactive services, Admiral CEO Nadia Geigler told Senior Housing News.
Other pillars of the plan include attracting and growing talent; nurturing culture and engagement of residents and employees with each other and the broader community; and enhancing the resident experience and the community’s efficiency.
The strategic plan was the result of nine months of meetings and conversations with board members, residents, management and experts from outside the organization, Geigler told SHN .
Geigler joined The Admiral in April 2016 as its chief operating officer before being promoted to CEO in January 2017. A 20-year senior living veteran, she started her career as a part-time receptionist at Covenant Retirement Communities, working her way up to director of administrative services before she joined The Admiral.
The Admiral will mark seven years of operation next month and, with operations, finances and occupancy stabilized, the board decided to look at The Admiral’s next phase.
“It was clear that it was time to think about what the future of [The Admiral] should look like,” Geigler said.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
How did this strategic plan develop?
In October 2017, the board requested that we research strategic planning. It took the bulk of 2018. We had over 140 people — residents, management, board members and people from outside the organization — engaged in conversations about what we should be paying attention to, what are the dominant trends in senior living, what’s important to us, based on our values as an organization, what things should persist no matter what.
What were your discussions with Kendal’s corporate office during this planning process? Were there items that emerged that could be applied to other Kendal communities?
Each Kendal affiliate is its own community and even within the Kendal system, there is an appreciation for the differences between them. At the end of the day, what we all agree to are the values and practices of the organization.
Strategically, Kendal corporate was not involved in this strategic plan, although [Kendal President and CEO] Sean Kelly sits on The Admiral’s board, and one of our board members also sits on Kendal’s board.
At the same time we started developing our strategic plan, Kendal was also reassessing its mission and beginning to develop its own strategic plan. So to be able to look over each other’s shoulder at what the other was discovering was helpful. There were different approaches to reach the same answer.
There are certainly some things in the strategic plan that show up at other affiliates and within Kendal’s corporate structure. But there’s a process by which they identify what is helpful for their communities, as well as on a corporate level.
Of the four strategies The Admiral highlighted in its new mission, which is most pressing?
If I had to choose one to execute very well, it would have to be caring for the whole person. That’s the foundation by which everything else becomes achievable.
What did The Admiral have in place to build on that caring for the whole person strategy?
One of the shifts that was already happening for us — and faster than we realized — was shifting away from reactive health care to more of a proactive approach to care.
We brought on a full-time social worker for independent living, who is involved in everything from grief support groups to helping an individual or couple through the transition to life here.
We have a full-time registered dietitian who helps oversee staff, assists with menu planning and development. These are services that are available to individuals and groups who have questions about medically or self-imposed dietary restrictions. They can assist residents on navigating the next menu cycle and make the best nutritional choices for them.
We also brought in a full-time wellness coordinator who has a background in coaching and fitness, with certification in working with folks [suffering from] dementia. Her experience, viewpoint and approach is all about whole person wellness. She works closely with the social worker, which gives residents in need two people advocating for them.
We partnered with a group to set up a nurse practitioner shop in our wellness clinics, who can be available for anything a walk-in clinic can provide, in lieu of a trip to the doctor’s office or emergency room. They work very closely with us and with the residents’ primary care physicians. Together, they can work on case management.
We vetted and partnered with a home health and hospice agency, and set them up here on campus. We’ll keep adding new elements of care as we move forward. We believe there are relationships we can establish and resources outside these walls that can be leveraged for the benefit of our residents.
How is The Admiral addressing workforce pressures to recruit new hires and retain its current talent?
Like other communities, we pay attention to competitive salaries and benefits. What’s changed was, how do we improve the employee experience at The Admiral: are you heard; are you asked for input; are we helping you live out your sense of purpose?
That starts with all things related to our culture, and how that was felt and experienced. In 2017 and the early part of 2018, we pumped a lot of energy toward the experience of being an employee. That is a difference maker.
Our competitive advantage [for talent] isn’t going to be salary or benefits, although we want those to be the best possible. It’s going to be how they feel about walking in to work, whether that is day one, year three or year fourteen. Do they see avenues where they can grow and develop a career, within or outside their roles and, when they see that, do they see us as a support or a hindrance?
We’ve paid a lot more attention about what we give back than what we get out of [employees]. We’ve added internships in the past couple years, which takes a lot of work to be ready to bring them on board and help them grow in ways that benefit them.
We do this with the understanding that not all of them will want to pursue careers in the industry, or we may not have a job ready for them once their internship ends. We have a lot of opportunity to be a host for an intern who wants to practice and get better, regardless of what they want to pursue.
When we do that we know we’re getting better, but we aren’t doing it to make ourselves better first.
What is The Admiral’s employee turnover rate like these days?
The past couple years we’ve seen positive trends in overall turnover reduction and what I call “good turnover.”
When we talk about an individual, they could be moving to another community to be closer to family. They may have completed their degree and ready to pursue a career they have wanted for a long time. They may be ready to move up, we aren’t ready to accept them here, and they found a position some place that is ready for them. That is all “good turnover.”
It comes with a cost to us — emotional or financial — but we always support them.
We’re paying more attention to retention these days. Certain positions will always have a higher turnover rate than others. From a financial impact perspective, [retention is] the most important metric to pay attention to. It’s also important from a cultural standpoint to know why they’re staying.
How is The Admiral approaching advancements in, and tenant demand for, technology?
Like most communities, we want to do more.
Technology was one of the workgroups that we had a deep dive into. Our IT director led that group and pulled together a resident group to focus on resident-facing technology, and a staff group that looked at staff-facing technology. We want to deploy it where it can eliminate redundancies, create efficiencies and enrich everyone’s lives.
We’re looking at ways in which we can utilize technology for cost savings, such as smart thermostats that can be monitored if a resident is away for an extended period of time. Our residents are wanting bells and whistles and gadgets.
We’re open to it, where it makes us better.
How will The Admiral track the progress of its strategic plan?
Our leadership team talks about it constantly — in weekly meetings and amongst each other — about what is happening to further the four goals.
I maintain a list of all efforts related to one or more strategic theme. I also maintain a list of all possible tactics which might support objectives and themes. Our executive team is working to identify what the next opportunities are.
The way we see this is each of these [objectives] is its own Mt. Everest. We’re not looking to scale the mountain all at once. We want to make small moves that can be carried out thoroughly and impactfully. Each small move will bring us closer to the summit.
It’s just one step at a time.