Women dominate in the senior living workforce. Four out of five professionals who care for seniors are women—and women don’t just work in senior living: They lead.
Unlike in the general business world, where the glass ceiling is still very much intact, women hold nearly 70 percent of senior living management jobs. Last fall Argentum launched a new initiative celebrating the contributions women have made to the growth and health of the industry. We continue that celebration with profiles of seven women who have championed senior living.
We’ve seen conflicting pulls lately. Even as #MeToo has thrown a harsh light on the challenges women face, unprecedented numbers of women politicians also have risen to national prominence. In senior living, meanwhile, many female leaders say they have found their niche in an industry that is generally respectful and supportive. “I’ve not found that there has been any real delineation between males and females in senior living,” said Kelley Skarp, SVP of sales & marketing for The Arbor Company. “I’ve not felt concerned or threatened. I’ve always had opportunities to advance my career.”
No industry is perfect, of course, but for these women, senior living has proven a welcoming environment. Their combined successes demonstrate the boundless professional possibilities open to women who may be seeking to make a difference in the lives of seniors.
Anne Campbell is between titles at the moment. She’s still employed with Juniper Communities: They just haven’t come up with a name for what she does there.
“I’m working with our president Lynne Katzmann on the further development of our integrated care model. That’s a high-touch, technological approach, using electronic health records and a position we call the ‘medical concierge’ as a way to improve folks’ outcomes. We have some exciting results with that and we are looking at expanding that,” she said.
Campbell started out in senior housing 13 years ago, having first gone to school for social work and then working on aging issues within social service agencies. She did a stint as a stay-at-home mom before finding her way into her first senior housing role, as an executive director in a Brookline memory care community.
“When it was time to go back to work, I saw an ad in the paper and I said: I can do that! I had worked with individuals with dementia and that was my favorite population to work with. I felt that I could really deliver good care by listening to them and by learning more about them. This is a population that can easily be underserved, and I felt passionately about providing a high level of service to this very vulnerable population,” she said.
When Juniper bought Brookline, she saw an opportunity to kick her career into high gear.
“Juniper was doing really innovative, cool things that I had not been part of before. They brought a lot of technology really quickly—having an electronic health record and being able to use data to improve the care and service that we deliver,” she said. “That was very new for me.”
She appreciated the company’s efforts to leverage digital data in support of measurable outcomes. The new tools offered her a way to bring an even higher level of care to the table. Senior management encouraged her to get up to speed on this new mode of caregiving. “They were very kind and patient and supportive,” she said. “It was a lot to learn, but they worked with us to get it done.”
There have been challenges along the way, as a formerly mom-and-pop operation has been folded into a larger, more professional organization. “It takes a lot of meetings, a lot of conversations, a lot of communication,” she said. “With every decision that was made we tried to explain how these news things were good for the residents.”
Having moved from operations to the executive suite, Campbell is less hands-on now than she used to be, but she’s found a way to stay connected. “I live less than 10 minutes away from the campus so I can still be here every day,” she said. “Even if I am doing corporate work, being physically close helps to keep me in touch with why I am here and what our ultimate goal is.”
ADVICE TO YOUNG WOMEN: “This is hard work, it is emotional, and if you don’t have a culture to support you as a human being it makes it that much more difficult. You need to look for a company that shares your values. You need a team that walks the talk.”
Lisa Fordyce’s early resume didn’t have “future executive” written all over it. She went to vocational school to learn to be a caregiver. She married young, at age 19, and took a nursing job in a skilled nursing community, doing shift work while she studied for her boards.
If she’s been able to parlay that modest beginning into a lifelong career, it’s largely because of the underlying passion that first propelled her into senior care.
“I knew I wanted to be in senior housing from early in my high school years,” said Fordyce. “I was fortunate to grow up with great-grandparents and my grandparents. My mother took care of my great-grandfather, and we would actually live with him in his home for a couple weeks out of the month, alternating with other family members. So I always knew that I wanted to be with older people.”
It took a little while for that initial impulse to form itself into a career ambition. Fordyce says she got a lot of support and guidance from supervisors who appreciated her potential.
“In the first five or six years I didn’t have a specific goal in mind, but I had leaders who saw me as a dedicated employee, someone who strived to do a good job, who wanted to do it the right way,” she said. “They put opportunities in front of me and once I got the taste of that, I wanted more and more of those opportunities.”
She climbed the ladder, taking regional and then national leadership roles. She earned her stripes as a leader who would stay in for the long haul: Seven years at ARV Assisted Living (now known as Atria Senior Living), almost 10 years at Emeritus. Along the way she augmented her caregiving skills with a deeper understanding of operations.
Despite her steady rise, she encountered bumps along the road. She left her last job in order to be at home with her ailing grandmother. It required a literal leap of faith in order to put career aside temporarily, but she felt she owed it to her grandmother.
“I’m a religious person and I turned it over to God saying, whatever will be will be. I knew I had created value and been a loyal employee and I just had to trust that everything would come together the way it was supposed to,” she said.
When she was ready to return, her old contacts greeted her with open arms. “I had had a relationship with the OnShift team for about eight years, and when they reached out to me the timing was great. I was ready to learn something new and they saw it as a great opportunity for their company,” she said.
ADVICE TO YOUNG WOMEN: “Don’t just check the boxes: I accomplished being a regional, I accomplished being a VP or a SVP. Take the time to really enjoy those experiences, to learn from them, and to not see it as a race. It’s about being you, being true to your passion, true to your drive and what you really want to accomplish.”
For over a decade Mercedes Kerr has worked her way up the ladder with Welltower, a massive publicly-held firm with an ownership stake in diverse senior living, health care, and real estate enterprises. In 2016 she joined the firm’s senior management team.
Born and raised in Mexico, Kerr came to the U.S. for grad school. She says her career success demonstrates just what is possible in senior living. “It’s not just people who have a clear path to success who get to make it,” said Kerr. “Having come from a different country and having started from scratch, I can see that there is a tremendous amount of growth potential for anyone in this industry. Because this is an industry that is still maturing, that gives rise to a lot of potential opportunity for those to want to take advantage of it.”
As a business development executive, Kerr’s job is to guide and strengthen the various businesses within the Welltower portfolio, pairing her business acumen with the operators’ ground-level understanding of how a community functions. “I respect what they do: They are the ones in the communities delivering the care,” she said. “I can bring a pragmatic view to complement that, a deeper understanding of the business side. I am not an operator but I know how to optimize operations, and I like that I can address both sides of the equation.”
Even as she has thrived in that role, Kerr has wrangled with what she calls the “age-old challenge,” balancing her career against the demands of domesticity, including a husband and two teenaged daughters.
“My work is very rewarding to me, I love the company and what we stand for, but it does require a lot of travel,” she said. “My husband is very supportive and I have a very supportive company as well. And sometimes you just put in that extra effort. There can be a lot of different balls in the air, but you just find a way to juggle. I think I actually work a little better that way. Having that pressure helps to keep me focused and organized.”
Focus is key, given the complex demands of the job. Welltower has a broad portfolio encompassing not just senior living but also post-acute and outpatient facilities and various real estate holdings. That broad base of experience has been a boon to Kerr, who has leveraged her experience to benefit a range of enterprises.
“I can see how the pieces of health care all fit together,” she said. “Rather than see competing interests, I can view them as complimentary. I can see how all the different pieces can support one another. Then if a company is trying to study its growth opportunities, or trying to update its operating model, these are all conversations that I can be a part of. That’s my job, to give them that governance and that sense of direction.”
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