Brookdale Senior Living is a premier nationwide provider of senior living services and has nearly 80,000 associates. Regional Vice President of Operations for Brookdale’s Southeast Division, Kellee Agee, talks about assisted living, senior services, the future of the industry, and more.
How did you come to hold the position of Regional Vice President of Operations?
Such a wonderful story. As with anyone in healthcare, there is an interesting hook at some point in their lives. About 20 years ago now, a best friend of mine who was in assisted living as an executive director running a community, she and I would many times talk about our jobs. I was a business woman but I wasn’t in healthcare but I had a tremendous amount of stress as she did, I dealt with laws, regulations, budgets, and employees. But she had such stories abo
ut having an impact with people’s lives, and it spoke to me on such a level that when I became pregnant, I had a very early somewhat mid-life crisis where I felt I wanted to do something more meaningful. So I spoke to my family about wanting to get into senior living. But I was told I couldn’t just come in and run without having experience in the healthcare aspect. I was willing to take a step back and become a part, so I was hired as the business manager of a community after I convinced them I was serious.
At that time, after about 4 months in the business office capacity, I was promoted to my own building, which is unheard of and I don’t know anyone else who was that fast paced. But in North Carolina at the time, there wasn’t any kind of formalized training or certification that you had to go through. From day one when I walked into the industry, I had to take home manuals to learn what people were saying around me. But looking back, I can’t imagine doing anything else; I feel so privileged to care for people. It kind of chose me, I feel.
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How many assisted living facilities do you have nationwide?
At Brookdale we’ve got a little over 1,100 properties. The region that I oversee has 35 properties across North Carolina and Virginia, and so that’s my area of expertise at this given point. We have such tremendous heart at the head of this company, and you almost have to experience it. Our former CEO was such a tremendous man that set a benchmark of excellence and of being a person first, and allowing that to translate into what we do. Andy Smith, when he took the reins and getting the chance to see Andy respond, interact, and communicate with our company – as large as we are – he has continued that same standard. It’s a privilege. We truly have people that understand the results come from doing the other things right and doing them well, and that you’re going to have periods of time where there’s going to be a lull.
If a family out there who is in need of an assisted living facility is looking for the right place for the father, mother, husband, etc., what should they look for in an assisted living community?
That’s a great question, and I think it’s something – to be honest with you – I wish more families would better equip themselves to visit different communities. There’s such an emotional state of mind when someone is in need of help or support with a loved one. They thus tend to put too much weight on how they connect with an individual person – be that a salesperson or a person in administration – and it needs to go beyond that. The people aspect is critical, so one of the things I tell my own family members and neighbors, people who don’t have Brookdale as an option, is when they go into any healthcare setting, talk to and pay attention to all of the people within the walls of the community. Talk to as many as you can to get a sense of their satisfaction, their happiness. What kind of feel do you get from people who are there day in and day out?
Definitely interact with the residents, if possible. Sometimes it’s not as beneficial, but they will tell you if they are happy, engaged, if they’re treated with respect from the staff. If that’s not part of the initial walk-through, then take that initiative and try to talk to other people. Even with something like Brookdale, it’s all about having great people who are called to do what they’re doing, who are well trained, and who have the resources. You don’t have to be overly-educated or understand all the jargon or ins and outs of regulations and requirements; it really comes down to a family going into a community and getting a sense of the people working within the community, and the confidence they can have. That makes the difference, and that’s something that Brookdale understands; it’s threaded in everything that we do, that people are the key. It’s not the corporate office, it’s not me, it’s not having state-of-the-art programs; it’s about investing in the caregiver, the cook, in the housekeeper. That’s where you’re going to get the most impact, in the people working within the community who are actually providing the care.
With the caregivers, you need to look into, are they certified by a state program? Are they actually required to be certified nursing assistants? Do they have nurses Monday through Friday? Do they have them around the clock? I think they need to be empowered to ask every hard-hitting question that they possibly can and ensure they get good answers, specific quantified responses.
Obviously, care takes money, just like anything else. How should a family look at making sure that they have the funds available to go to an assisted living facility, one that has the quality of a Brookdale community? And what are alternative ways to pay for care?
Generally depending on the situation, I think that’s where Social Security and annuities or retirement is not enough to cover that. What you find is that you have more and more families that are either looking at a limited amount of savings for retirement benefits that they have, and it only gets them so far. There are other options out there, but they’re not foolproof. Some states have a some level of assisted programs either through Medicaid or some other branch of social services to provide some assistance. Overall, when it comes to paying for care needs and as care needs advance between a resident using their savings, retirement, we’re seeing more companies getting on board to provide additional options with reversed mortgages. You definitely have some of those options, cash-out options on life insurance policies and things of that nature.
But I am so thrilled to see the uptick in long term care insurance. Others will need it far longer than any of the best planning could have foreseen if they don’t have some sort of long term retirement or family wealth that’s going to sustain decades of advanced care needs.
I’m seeing an increase in awareness, but people have to get more educated and plan better for long term and how they’re going to provide for themselves. We’ve seen a lot of scare with even something that was considered a given: Social Security. People understand we are living longer, and unfortunately we’re becoming less and less healthy as we live longer. More of us are going to need longer term but more expensive provision as we age.
What do you see coming for the future of assisted living communities and care for seniors?
I see a lot more tattoos and nose rings, to add comic relief to it. I definitely see that with coming generations, there’s a different level of expectation. There’s a different level of education, so I think we’re going to have far more demanding consumers, both residents that need the services as well as their families to where all companies are going to have to step up and meet the changing needs of the Baby Boomers. Their needs are very different than the previous generation.
I think we’re also seeing the younger people coming into the workforce having a much more demanding expectation of what they want in an employer. So maybe work ethic is one way to put it, but we’re looking at the fact that we’re going to have to have a different model of who’s going to be that caregiver 10 years from now. When you look at the fact that our aging population is going to explode over the next couple of decades, the workforce based on projected numbers doesn’t look to keep up with that. So I really think that we as a society are going to have to think of some ingenious ways to bring technology and synergies into senior living to maximize the benefit provided for seniors outside of what individual person to person is going to provide. I think that also may be a benefit to people who are living at home, as well. There’s going to be a lot of change.
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