The Argentum Hero Awards, presented by Benchmark, recognize ideal representatives of people serving in the senior living field. Nominated by regional/company executives and executive directors, these individuals to show the highest levels of excellence, caring, and dedication. A special category, Hero Award for Leadership in the Face of a Natural Disaster, was introduced in 2018 and recognizes an individual who demonstrated courage, valor, and clear thinking during a natural disaster.
The Argentum Senior Living Community Leadership Award recognizes executive directors for exemplary leadership, including quality in day-to-day operations; maintaining staff, resident, and family engagement; and budget adherence and regulatory compliance. The honoree is chosen from nominations from Argentum member owner/operator companies.
At this time in particular, we recognize not only these honorees but the many other heroes who inspire and energize us in this work.
Program Director, Avita of Wells
Parents of toddlers are familiar with taking them to music or art classes—where children bang on drums, learn songs, smear paint around, dance waving scarves, practice sharing—and have found the experience adorable, hilarious, and heartwarming. Those in memory care feel the same. Why not bring them all together?
“When we create these intergenerational programs, these barriers break down, and then connections are made organically that are just absolutely amazing to witness,” says Angela Mastrella, program director at Avita of Wells Memory Care, whose nominator calls her a “fierce advocate for her residents.”
“She prides herself on ensuring that those living with dementia have a true sense of purpose.”
“You see the flooding of memories of raising their own children,” Mastrella says, “which almost 100 percent of the time is what they remember or enjoyed most about their lives.”
Many of the interactions grow into friendships, such as the one between Stanley, 95, and Etta, 3, which was covered by Good Morning America. Etta and her mom visit Stanley, bring treats, and play the Candyland board game—pretty much a 3-year-old’s perfect day.
All ages included
The intergenerational bridges at Avita of Wells don’t stop with toddlers. Elementary students have a “senior buddy” to talk to and play games with. The nearby junior high has a “lunch bunch,” where students serve lunch to residents, which grew into one-on-one visits of listening to music together and helping with technology. The high schoolers can learn about senior living careers or get volunteer practicum experience. In fact, the walk between the community and the nearby school has been named the “Pathway to Generations.”
There are so many ways to have these moments of great joy, if you just think outside the box.”
The programs grew organically, too. The junior high program evolved and the school got wind of the success of it. More parents were saying, I want my child to be involved in that.”
Though she started several intergenerational programs, Mastrella says, “it’s not always me reaching out. Sometimes it’s the teachers reaching out and saying, Hey, could this happen? And I always think of a way to say, yes, it can. I never close the door to an opportunity.”
Part of her own purpose is to end stereotypes about who people living with dementia are and what they can do. “There are so many ways to have these moments of great joy, if you just think outside the box. You may have to modify and assist, but there are ways to make it happen.”
Assisted living became a more understanding, compassionate and kind world because of Angela,” her nomination says. “There is no mistaking that this was what she was meant to do.”
Director of Lifestyles, Vi at Lakeside Village
Vi WATCH VIDEO
Helping Residents Realize Their Dreams
Once again, Tamara Sawicz, director of lifestyles at Vi at Lakeside Village, is putting her life experience to work for residents.
“Having a tech background is my silver lining,” she says during an interview in May, when many communities have limited visitation and are relying on video calls, which she’s helping facilitate. “My crazy diverse background has come in handy in so many ways.”
You bring your own personality into the environment, and the residents have these desires, and you blend the two together.”
She was a television news writer and producer, got a master’s in social work, and started her own production business, among other things. In eight years at Vi, she’s started a cooking show, hosted classes and presentations, and completed a project on veterans in the community that was selected to be part of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve had people ask me: When you were hired, did you think you’d be doing all this?” Sawicz says. “I say, no, it just evolves.
“You bring your own personality into the environment, and the residents have these desires, and you blend the two together.”
But her journalism experience may be the real silver lining.
“I do ask a lot of questions,” she says. “I’ve learned over the years, you don’t even have to ask probing or personal questions. You just ask one open-ended question, and it leads to a great dialogue. It opens up the residents to talk more about what they would like to see more of, or how they would like to plan something or share their story.
“Even the shy ones, once you just walk down the hallway with them and talk to them a little bit, you’ll get a little insight as to who they are and where they’re from. I don’t push, of course, I’ll just say, Wow! Have you ever considered sharing this, or teaching that?”
So much to share
One resident, whom Sawicz describes as “elegant and intellectual…she is a diva,” ended up giving talks on opera and ballet. Another, who had worked in packaging all his life, transfixed the community audience by describing how the iconic Hershey’s chocolate bar wrapper was developed.
Another had her life dream come true at age 101: Selma wanted to be a published writer. She asked Sawicz to start a creative writing class, where Selma was a prolific writer. For one class, Sawicz invited a published author friend to give feedback. Selma and the author became friends—almost like family to one another, Sawicz says. When Selma gave him a piece of fiction, he and Sawicz created a bound and published book, Flowers.
“The residents come to me and have these ideas,” Sawicz says, “and if I can’t make it happen, I’ll find someone who can.”
HERO AWARD: Leadership in the Face of a Natural Disaster
Sales Manager, Brookdale Tequesta Assisted Living & Memory Care
Brookdale WATCH VIDEO
A Buoyant Presence in the Storm
Steven McLaurin holds two titles at Brookdale Tequesta: He’s sales manager, and he’s The Sandwich King. That’s what he dubbed himself after making more than 50 peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the bus ride as the community evacuated from Tequesta to Jacksonville.
But that wasn’t the end of their travels. As Hurricane Dorian’s erratic path made Jacksonville unsafe, the community had to head inland to Leesburg, in Central Florida, and McLaurin became the ad hoc life enrichment and activities leader.
“He didn’t bat an eye,” according to his nomination. “Being a sales manager, Steve was a natural with his positivity and true passion to serve our residents.”
A feeling of safety
When McLaurin’s wife called him on the way to Jacksonville and told him the hurricane was headed that way, he says he “looked a little upset. I saw some of the residents looking worried, and I realized that I have to keep that feeling inside and be a calm presence. Whatever was going on, we had a plan. The residents are looking to us for that comfort.”
The community had supplies and a plan, but McLaurin realized what was also important was care: keeping a feeling of safety, normalcy, and even fun.
“It was really eye-opening to realize what each department has to do, every single day, to run these communities.”
Through the waiting, traveling, different rooms in hotels and communities, and uncertainties, he played word games and led light group conversations. He helped with morning exercise and brain fitness. He did head counts—an experience more stressful than he had realized. He helped serve meals (beyond peanut butter and jelly). He gently guided wandering residents and assisted nurses.
He kept track of walkers and assistive devices. He helped with toileting and changed adult diapers.
And when a resident was ill, he accompanied her to the emergency room and stayed with her for more than six hours, to be sure she had a familiar face and was comfortable.
“I was exhausted,” he says, laughing, about his experience of wearing so many hats.
“When you’re a marketing person, like me, or maybe in the business office or in dining, you might not realize what other jobs people are doing and how hard they are.”
Once the community was settled safely back at Tequesta and had its first staff meeting, McLaurin told the group about his realization—and his admiration of the team.
“I think what got me through was just the fact that I love the residents, I’m there for them—and they were helping me out, too. They understood. They said hey, Steve’s not the regular activities person, but he’s doing the best he can.”
“It was really eye-opening to realize what each department has to do, every single day, to run these communities. I usually see it from the outside.”
In the current COVID-19 crisis, he’s putting what he’s learned to work again—making checklists, helping with meals, pitching in where he’s needed.
Before entering senior living, McLaurin had been a successful pool salesperson in the Southeast, and enjoyed it. But the feeling of helping a resident who may have been isolated, and whose family had been anxious, begin to enjoy life in community that’s something other types of sales can’t provide, he says.
“It’s a super supportive environment. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
SENIOR LIVING COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP AWARD
Executive Director, The Residences at Thomas Circle
Senior Lifestyle WATCH VIDEO
Honesty Plus Empathy Equals Community
More than two decades ago, Scott McAlister was working in the hotel industry in the Caribbean, but his family needed a more stable environment than island life provided. His wife and their neighbor were “in cahoots,” he says, to get him to interview in Florida for a job in senior living, a field in which he had no experience. “I went in and was brutally honest,” he says, “and I walked out of there thinking I would never be offered the job.”
They liked the honesty—and the hospitality industry experience. By the second day on the job, he says, “I had found a calling. I was at home with myself.”
Today, when he interviews others, he encourages people to be their authentic selves. “I tell people: I’m fine to work with as long as you can say three things to me: I don’t know, I need help, and I messed up.” With this, a leader can create a culture of confidence and vulnerability.
Hospitality and senior living have a lot in common—interpersonal skills, attention to detail, listening for and delivering on needs and wants. The difference is in the depth of the relationships: Hotel guests stay only a few days; for senior living residents, it’s their home.
Even so, McAlister says, the same drive to exceed expectations remains: “Sometimes that urgency gets dulled, because a resident might say, Oh, I don’t mind if the soup is only lukewarm today, because they were so nice and brought me a birthday cake last week.”
That’s not a tradeoff he’s willing to make: “I want them to have the birthday cake, and I want them to have hot soup.”
Some of the fruits of this close attention:
The longtime resident whose passion was baking: She had never been able to bake her famous Italian cookies for holidays, because her oven wasn’t large enough. Her two adult daughters mentioned it, and McAlister located a bigger oven, and had it installed, to everyone’s delight. She baked cookies into her 100th year.
The team member whose husband and son experienced health crises in the same year: McAlister offered alternative shifts and transportation help—even giving the son a three-hour ride to college on a Saturday morning.
The college scholarship fund for women in health care: McAlister started this in memory of his Resident Services Manager, who had been the first in her family to attend college.
Since McAlister was selected for the 2020 Senior Living Community Leadership Award he has moved to another position with a different company, but he and Senior Lifestyle have nothing but praise for his years there.
As the nomination notes, he is interested in the industry as a whole, and helping other leaders is a big part of what makes him special: “Scott makes a difference not only at the community that he operates, but also through his positive influence, wisdom, and inspiration to the executive directors that he works with at other communities.”
In fact, McAlister says he found the supportive Senior Lifestyle culture made it easy to succeed. He welcomed visits from the corporate team: “That’s great, let’s learn from them,” he would tell staff. “They’re only going to make us better. We’ll learn from each other. I just see it all as a positive experience.”
His mission, he says, is driven by a simple question: “If my mother and father were sitting there, what would I want that executive director to do?”
See the Argentum press release announcing the 2020 Hero Award honorees