Older women playing a board game

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Creating a cultural conversion in a senior living community is difficult work, according to those who have gone through the process. But the end result is worth it.

Christian Living Communities–Capella Living Solutions, for example, has successfully moved its long-term care communities toward a person-directed and citizenship approach. The leadership team explained details about the process during Pioneer Network’s “Envisioning the Future” online symposia Wednesday.

Company CEO and President Jill Vitale-Aussem said that much of what happens in long-term care is rooted in ageist beliefs and disables people. She decided to move her Denver-based not-for-profit senior living company to a citizenship model, where people who live and work in CLC communities all have a role to play and where aging is celebrated and honored.

Vitale-Aussem said the job of a leader is not to be a manager but a community-builder. She likened the position to a mayor who has two jobs: providing infrastructure and building the social fabric of a community to bring out the best of everyone.

“Leadership is critical to not just getting this started, but to sustain it,” she said, adding that her goal is to have people leave a community thinking differently about aging, dementia and inclusion, whether they are job candidates or prospective customers. “There is so much we can do to shift perceptions of aging that have a ripple effect just by coming to our communities.”

Vitale-Aussem said that leaders need to be committed to the process of cultural transformation and not abandon it when the going gets tough.

“Expect it to be challenging work. Anything that is worth doing is hard,” she emphasized. “You can destroy in months what it takes years to build. That’s pretty dangerous. One of the worst things you can do is bring this new way of being to an organization and then take it away. It hurts residents, families and team members.”


Robin Heppler, director of sales and marketing at Someren Glen, a CLC life plan community, said that it’s just as important to educate the sales team about culture change. By creating empowering language, sales staff members can invite prospective residents to think about how they can contribute to a community’s culture.

“It allows you to meet them and totally stop selling the building, but sell the life that’s happening in the walls,” Heppler said. “When you stop selling, relationships start happening.”

Heppler said she likes to have residents invite prospects to tour their homes so they can see what life is really like in that community. 

“Your culture will sell itself,” she said. “It’s really getting in there and creating life, showing life. It’s happening — just make sure you’re pointing it out.”


Andrew Sharp, community life director at CLC community Clermont Park, and Vitale-Aussem support formal training to get everyone “on the same page,” to determine what a community can look like and to lay out steps to get there. And he advocates including everyone — staff members, residents and families — in that training.

CLC used the Eden Alternative culture change education program to transform its communities, but Vitale-Aussem said that plenty of free resources don’t require changing staffing levels or increasing expenses.

“There are ways to do this without adding additional staffing to change culture,” she said. “It’s not something else on your plate; it’s a whole new plate. It’s changing the way you do things.”

The important thing to remember, Vitale-Aussem added, is that the work that goes into creating a cultural transformation is never done. 

“You don’t need to see the whole path laid out before you,” she said. “You pave it as you walk it.”

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