Jill Vitale-Aussem, the incoming CEO of Christian Living Communities (CLC), is not satisfied with the status quo in senior living. In fact, she wrote an entire book on the topic.
The ideas in that book — Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living: A Mindshift — are rooted largely in her hospitality background, as a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, and in lessons she learned with various senior living organizations, including as executive director of a CLC life plan community in Denver between 2009 and 2015.
Vitale-Aussem left CLC to become president and CEO of The Eden Alternative, which is the organization created by Bill Thomas that drives culture change efforts in senior housing and care.
Now, Vitale-Aussem is returning to CLC, where she will be drawing from all these experiences to guide the organization and further strengthen its reputation as an industry innovator, she told Senior Housing News.
“There’s a lot that’s changed since I left two-and-a-half years ago, so I have a lot of things to get back in there and learn,” she said. “Growth and innovation is definitely on the horizon.”
Englewood, Colorado-based CLC is not-for-profit but has a for-profit management arm called Cappella Living Solutions. Together, CLC and Cappella own and/or operate 23 communities across six states, including Clermont Park, the campus that Vitale-Aussem used to lead.
Vitale-Aussem joined Clermont Park as the community was starting an $80 million campus redevelopment project. That situation prompted her to think more deeply about how the community operated and to enact changes.
“If you just build a new building and don’t change your operating culture, it usually doesn’t work out,” she said. “You need the hardware (the building) but also the software to run it (the new culture).”
She began to see a disconnect between her education and training in hospitality and what the research indicated about how people live long, fulfilling lives. Although she had spent enormous amounts and time and energy in “perfecting customer service” and could bring high-caliber hospitality into the senior living space, she perceived that residents should not be seen as being merely “recipients of services.”
Some senior living communities proudly presented themselves as places where older adults could put their feet up and “never do anything again,” but Vitale-Aussem came to see this as a form of ageism or ableism, that underestimates residents’ abilities and desires.
Hospitality and health care services need to be part of senior living, but Vitale-Aussem believes in what she calls a “citizenship model.”
“That empowers people, when you think of yourself as, ‘I am a critical part of this community, I am a citizen here, what I do matters here, and I have a responsibility for myself and others,’” she said.
Creating this model demands some changes that buck senior living convention. For example, decreasing the segregation that occurs between people at different care levels or with different abilities, and creating a culture of ongoing personal growth rather than becoming too fixated on who people were in the past. Also, taking a different approach to risk, and managing risks rather than trying to eliminate them, in the interest of promoting residents’ sense of purpose.
Driving toward this citizenship model led to positive results at Clermont Park, and Vitale-Aussem thinks that being more cognizant of the insidious ways that ageism is manifested in senior living operations can lead to improvements in key business metrics, as well as resulting in life enrichment for residents and team members.
“It’s really digging into all of the things we believe about aging that are, many times, false, and the impact it’s having on occupancy, on team member retention and recruiting,” she said.
Covid-19 has created incredible challenges and hardships for the senior living field, but the pandemic also creates an environment that can lead to positive changes, she argued.
“I think with the spotlight on aging services, as it is right now, this is an opportunity for us to really look at what are the emerging models that we can be looking at in the future?” she said.
CLC has already been on the leading edge of new senior living models, including by integrating Medicare Advantage plans as a founding member of the Perennial Consortium, and in efforts to build a community using the modular Minka homes pioneered by Bill Thomas. Since Covid-19 struck, CLC has also implemented robust clinical protocols and detailed PPE projection and inventory systems, Vitale-Aussem said.
Such initiatives illustrate the “incredibly strong culture” that already exists within the CLC organization, which Vitale-Aussem said she wants to build on.
Senior living organizations are now facing challenges and uncertainties that leaders alone cannot solve, so engaging residents and team members will be crucial and is something that already is underway at CLC, she believes.
After officially starting as CEO on Nov. 16, Vitale-Aussem will seek first to learn about where CLC is at today before determining her top priorities and establishing a more specific roadmap for the future. But, her ambitions are clear, in that she wants the organization to be an industry leader.
“I always look at, when you lead an organization, the goal is to do better within your organization and have a ripple effect on the field, and really change the experience of aging,” she said.