‘We’re all trying to make a better industry,’ Lifetime Achievement Award winner says

Connections to people from all walks of life can launch careers, according to the McKnight’s Women of Distinction 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree.

More importantly, Houston-based Belmont Village Senior Living founder and CEO Patricia G. Will said, once established in your career, adopt a little kindness to those still climbing the ladder, and “don’t eat your young.”

Will shared insights and sage advice during the fourth annual McKnight’s Women of Distinction event. This year’s festivities were live after two years of being held virtually. In addition to recognizing women making their mark in the fields of senior living and skilled nursing, women in home care were recognized, marking the newest McKnight’s brand, McKnight’s Home Care.

Will’s remarks kicked off Friday’s Forum in a session titled “More lessons learned along the way,” during which she traced her career path into senior living. Additional sessions included panels on addressing the caregiver shortage and achieving career success.

The Forum followed Thursday’s awards dinner, during which the fourth class of Hall of Honor inductees and Rising Stars were recognized along with the second class of Veteran VIPs. The newest category, the McKnight’s Spirit Awards, paid tribute to acts of bravery, courage and determination.

A ‘lightbulb moment’

After a career as a financier and medical real estate developer, Will said, her personal experiences in family caregiving, combined with her professional ideas, led to a second career in senior living when she was in her 40s.

In the 1990s, Will’s mother-in-law was in the early stage of what later was determined to be Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition was misdiagnosed several times, often leading to stays in a psychiatric facility.

Will and her husband committed to finding a home caregiver and bringing her in-laws into their home, which led to new challenges and revelations.

“I thought, ‘I can probably make something better,’” she said, calling her decision to pursue her own path in senior living a “lightbulb moment.”

“It was serendipitous, almost,” she said.

Will said she took it upon herself to engage with a then very young Alzheimer’s Association, as well as educational institutions doing breakthrough brain research, including the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the Hilton School of Hospitality in Houston.

She built Belmont around fostering cognition — every community has a dedicated neighborhood for secure memory care, and its assisted living communities have programs for those with mild cognitive impairment.

“That dedication to memory care and fostering cognition has never gone away, only increased over time,” Will said.

Without much of an industry or capital formation for a senior living industry, Will said, she also had to contend with being a woman in a field where she had no experience and few people to tap as experts. A Harvard Business School graduate with distinction, she said she began a career as an entrepreneur because she couldn’t get on the interview list for companies that recruited from her business school.

She joked that when she launched her first senior living community, she took on $15 million worth of debt and offered her building and her two sons as collateral. Then she walked to the parking lot and “cried my heart out” due to fear.

Although her mother-in-law informed the launch of Will’s first community, she didn’t live to become a resident. Will said her own 93-year-old mother also influenced a redesign when she entered hospice care in one of Will’s communities.

“She gave me the critique of a lifetime,” Will said, adding that she used the notes from conversations with her mother to inform apartment redesigns moving forward, including ensuring that bathrooms have counter and storage space for women who want to primp.

“Living it through the eyes of your own, through your mother and father who raised you, it had a profound impact, even with all of the experience we have, on what we do and how we do it,” she said.

Lessons learned

The biggest lessons Will learned, she said “as a totally inexperienced female in senior housing, and a female with not enough net worth to carry myself,” was to rely on people from other walks of life who knew her professionally.

“The connectivity we have with people who know you, who can relate to you, who know your accomplishments from other walks of life — that’s what really launched me,” she said.

Will said the senior housing and care sector is special for women — the vast majority of residents, patients and workers continue to be women, daughters and daughter-in-laws traditionally bring loved ones into communities, and women understand resident needs in the most intimate ways.

“We have a tremendous competitive advantage, ladies,” Will said to female attendees. “I think this is an industry that lends itself to female leadership.”

Although women still face challenges — especially on the capital side — Will said there is “no challenge we face that we can’t overcome.”

‘Don’t eat your young’

Cultivating, growing and retaining the workforce is the greatest challenge facing the industry, the Lifetime Achievement Award winner said, adding that the members of the long-term care workforce who showed up during the pandemic under unimaginable circumstances are now exhausted due to worker shortages.

Along with acknowledging their exhaustion and the need to expand efforts to recruit workers from other industries and modify immigration policy, Will said that industry veterans need to be a little kinder to their younger counterparts and “not eat their young.” Doing so will help retain workers, she said.

As to workers struggling to balance their professional and personal lives, Will said, “It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to put ourselves back in the shoes where we were once upon a time and help people with their logistics. It wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now.”

Will said she continues to see women in the sector reach a high mark in middle management, but they don’t reach that last leg of upper management due to C-suite fears that they will leave to raise families.

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