After more than seven years in leadership at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, Aras Erekul was on the verge of taking a new job in Seattle — and that’s when he received a call from Watermark Retirement Communities Chairman David Freshwater and COO Karen Mlawsky.
They asked him to help shape Watermark’s future by creating a “grand vision for wellbeing,” Erekul told Senior Housing News.
This was an opportunity that he could not refuse. Erekul never went to Seattle, but instead began as Watermark’s National Director of Integrative Well-Being in December 2019.
Covid-19 has created unforeseen roadblocks and detours this year, but Erekul has helped guide Watermark’s pandemic response while at the same time he has been crafting a wellness framework that can apply across the Tucson-based provider’s portfolio. Watermark operates 65 communities and is growing.
Many senior living providers in recent years have shifted from a model focused on providing care and services that address residents’ health conditions and limitations, to a model aimed at proactively helping residents maintain their health and wellness in order to pursue their desired lifestyles for as long as possible.
Watermark placed itself on the leading edge of this shift by introducing its “integrative wellness” approach in 2018, and in hiring Erekul they have taken another significant step toward defining the company through the lens of wellness. In Erekul, they now have a recognized leader in the field of wellness, with a background that bridges the fields of medicine, real estate and hospitality, and a resume that includes education and jobs across different continents.
Unconventional path to senior living
Erekul’s career in wellness — and his involvement in senior living — can be traced back to a personal experience. He was in a residency program in Turkey, pursuing his goal of becoming a cardiovascular surgeon, when an auto-immune attack severely compromised his sight. He temporarily lost 50% of vision in his left eye and 25% in his right eye.
Doctors told him that exhaustion, compounded by lifestyle factors such as poor eating habits and passive smoking, had caused the attack. Without changes, he was on track to go blind by his mid-30s.
“That was a wake-up call to show that, one, surgery is not the path for me, and two, I had no idea about what wellbeing is,” he told SHN.
In training to become a surgeon, his focus had been on “fixing what is gravely broken,” but now his ambitions shifted: He wanted to focus on preventing health problems in the first place.
He recognized that destination resorts in the United States, such as Canyon Ranch, were spearheads for wellness “wisdom and research,” which led him to Cornell University. He enrolled in a master’s program in hospitality, with a focus on the development and management of wellness resorts.
After graduating in 2009, Erekul took a position at the Miraval Resort in Tucson, where he helped create a wellness program with Dr. Andrew Weil, who has authored bestselling books on wellness and founded the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
Following his time at Miraval, Erekul was looking for his next job, when he got a call from Canyon Ranch. The company was interested in building a location in Turkey.
“They said, ‘We received your resume from a friend of yours, and it looks like a perfect match. Where are you? We can fly you in for an interview.’ I said, ‘I’m 15 minutes down the road in Tucson, looking for a job,’” he told SHN. “That was another serendipitous alignment.”
Erekul was forging his career in wellness at the same time that the Affordable Care Act was remaking the United States’ health care system. With new payment models in place, providers were starting to focus more on proactive strategies to keep people healthier, longer. This shift was based on a growing body of evidence.
“All of the medical load of the United States’ health care system — when you consider everything — almost 70% to 80% is preventable lifestyle diseases, whether it’s cardiovascular, neurovascular, as well as to some extent the risk factors for cancer as well as neurological diseases,” Erekul said.
At Canyon Ranch, he was focused not only on bringing new wellness offerings to market but on creating a sustainable business model.
“I looked at the existing services from a business case — are we meeting the expectations and needs of our guests, first and foremost, but also are we up with the trends and technology coming around, and are we doing it in the best, financially feasible way for investors?” he said.
Canyon Ranch reaches consumers across various business segments, including wellness facilities on board luxury cruise ships, but its core offering remains two destination resorts, one in Tucson and one in Lenox, Massachusetts. A desire for work that would make a direct impact on an even larger number of people led Erekul to take the job in Seattle, right before receiving the call from Watermark.
At the time, Canyon Ranch had already made a move into senior living and had been talking with Watermark’s leadership about potential partnership opportunities. So, Erekul was not a total stranger to the sector or Watermark, and he was inspired by the opportunity to reach the large number of residents across the company’s quickly expanding nationwide portfolio.
The next evolution in senior living
As Watermark has steadily grown over the years, its focus on wellness has grown as well, driving several innovations — from equine therapy and Thrive dining in memory care to an array of lifestyle programs at its forthcoming luxury community in New York City.
But these initiatives have to some extent been piecemeal, applying to specific communities or sub-brands within the overall portfolio. Erekul’s mission is to create a wellness framework that can be applied as a brand standard across the entire company, to inform all aspects of the business, from which sites are chosen for development to how communities are designed to what technology investments are made. This is a more comprehensive approach versus senior living providers that focus more narrowly on wellness as a framework for community programming.
“The first few months were spent doing stakeholder interviews — exchanging visions and creating a blueprint of how we will go about making a flexible enough approach,” Erekul said.
In other words, Watermark communities in different locations and with unique cultures must have latitude to implement their own approaches, but standards must remain in place across the enterprise, with similar outcomes achieved by all communities.
For example, ways of promoting healthy movement by necessity will be different in Brooklyn than Napa, given space constraints and other factors. Watermark also operates communities at different consumer price points, which also will have a bearing on how wellness programs are operationalized. A high-end community likely will have more sophisticated technology to monitor and support a wellness-focused lifestyle, for instance. Erekul is particularly enthusiastic about the potential for voice-activated technology in resident rooms, as well as wearable tech that can capture data related to fitness and other facets of wellbeing.
“I think the biggest thing I’m excited about and look forward to is the ability to collect big data on both the individual but also the community level, and be able to store that data in a relevant, interconnected way that we can then slice and dice to gain insights … to make more educated and fact-based decisions on what to invest in next with our ownership groups,” he said.
While tech will still play a part, staff will likely have a more hands-on role at communities that charge more modest rates. Erekul is working with the company’s community life associates on these efforts; he acknowledged that diligently touching base with residents and delivering consistent programs on a regular basis can be “arduous,” but he emphasized that the impact makes these efforts worthwhile. And, although his primary focus is on a resident-facing wellness framework, he is playing a “support role” on efforts to ensure the ongoing wellbeing of associates.
“If we don’t have a well-balanced and well-supported associate census, we can’t deliver,” he said.
Covid-19 interrupted progress toward finalizing the company-wide wellness blueprint, and Erekul has been advising Watermark’s coronavirus task force, as well as providing support for new community development, openings and innovation, based on his hospitality experience. Still, he hopes to roll out the wellness blueprint within a few months, and some guiding principles are in place.
Despite the complexities of having a framework that can be adaptable to different communities, Erekul stressed that the essence of Watermark’s wellness approach must be clear and easily understood. He cited physicist Richard Feynman, who famously said that if you can’t explain something in simple terms, you do not understand it.
“We are really focusing on making our wellbeing intention — no matter how complex it is on the background, through the weaving of technology and social sciences together — it has to be very intuitive and simple,” he said.
He shared a simple sentence that he believes conveys the essence of wellness activity: “It is a group of people caring for each other’s wellbeing, gathered daily and having fun.”
The importance of having fun cannot be underestimated, as Erekul does not subscribe to an “outside-in” approach. That is, Watermark’s role is not to dictate how residents live, but rather to inspire and support them on a largely self-motivated journey toward enhanced wellbeing.
He described that journey as taking place in a landscape of metaphorical rolling hills, with highs and lows and “many different roads that interweave with each other.” Watermark’s approach will be more about promoting individual introspection and strong community connections, helping residents articulate their purpose and increase their resilience, rather than a “carrots-and-sticks” framework.
One major difference in working for Watermark as opposed to Canyon Ranch is that length of stay is measured in months and years rather than days. At Canyon Ranch, the goal by necessity was to show the potency of a wellness-driven lifestyle and try to motivate people to enact and maintain more long-lasting habits. At Watermark, Erekul sees an opportunity to spread touchpoints over a longer period of time, to show how even small changes can have a big impact. And, he does not see the age of Canyon Ranch guests versus the age of Watermark residents as a major differentiator.
“We can find 80- to 90-year-olds leading all sorts of active lifestyles and burning with passion for life, and you can see 30- or 40- or 50-year-olds checked out and having lost the spark of living,” he said.
He believes that this reality will only become more evident as the global population ages, and is one reason why senior living is shifting toward a wellness paradigm — a change that he is eager to accelerate.
“I would love to see myself as a catalyst,” he said. “Wellbeing is taking hold because it is the next obvious step in the evolution of the senior living profession, as people’s understanding of life stages shifts.”