Jill Vitale-Aussem hedshot
Jill Vitale-Aussem

Jill Vitale-Aussem became president and CEO of Christian Living Communities in November after almost three years at The Eden Alternative, where she held the same titles. But she previously had spent approximately nine years with CLC, first as an executive director of a community and then as a vice president at Cappella Living Solutions, the consulting and management division of CLC. Vitale-Aussem recently shared with McKnight’s Senior Living her thoughts about the future of CLC and the future of the senior living industry. 

Q: Did your experience at Eden Alternative shape your approach now at CLC?

A: Definitely. I got to spend two-and-a-half years learning and seeing what’s happening on a global scale and talking with people who are doing things differently. I was in operations for many, many years, and the opportunity to be a little bit separated from the operational side really challenged me to start looking at how we support individuals living with dementia and looking at where ageism is really impacting the way we run our communities and the outcomes in our communities. It has forever changed me and is helping me a lot in this role.

Q: Have you made any changes based on that experience?

A: There are things that we are exploring right now. At one of our communities here in Denver, we’re getting ready to start a big redevelopment project, and so we are exploring doing a household model of care for the nursing home design. We don’t know all the answers yet, but we’re asking the questions. Should we be creating locked memory support neighborhoods? How can we support individuals living with dementia with their peers? Just because we’ve always done it this way, is this the right way? We are embarking on a lot of exploration.

Q: CLC’s core leadership team is 64% women, and your board is 54% women and led by a woman. Could you talk about some of the things that CLC does to foster the recruitment, retention and professional growth of women, and why, in your words, gender diversity is important?

A: In our organization, 71% of residents are female, and 83% or 84% of team members are women. For a long time in this field, those numbers were always there, and when you got to the corporate leadership level, it became much more skewed toward men. It’s very important that we have diversity. We should represent the people that we employ and serve. Having male and female perspectives is very important. Having people from different backgrounds is very important. It brings a much broader perspective to conversations.

We are going to be doing a lot of focus in 2021 on diversity, equity and inclusion work — not just gender, but all the other types of diversity that we need to be a strong organization. We’re going to be hiring an organization to help us assess where we are right now by talking with people throughout the organization — the board of directors, leadership team, everybody who works in our communities, lives in our communities — and developing a plan to move forward.

When you see organizations focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, they don’t always include people who are living with different abilities, people living with dementia, people living with frailty, but we’re getting much better at that as a field. We’re also doing a lot of work around ageism. I’m excited about what we’ll learn individually as people and also as an organization.

Q: You are the author of a book, “Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living: A Mindshift.” What, in your opinion, is the biggest shift that the senior living industry needs to make?

A: I’m really passionate about re-thinking the role that hospitality and customer service play in our communities. I used to really focus on, “Come here and put your feet up, and you don’t ever have to worry again. We’ll care for you.” A life of leisure. That is rooted in ageist beliefs that when we get older, we have nothing left to give and no purpose left. It is not in alignment with what we know we need to live a long and healthy life.

We need meaningful purpose in our lives. We don’t need to live in a hotel. We need to belong. We need to continue growing and learning. We need a reason to get up in the morning. And so I am a huge proponent of shifting our thinking of residents as customers, which really creates helplessness, and moving to a model citizenship.

If you live in a community — and this is what we used to do at my CLC community where I was the leader — you ask people before they moved in, “What can you bring to this community to make it stronger and better? What do you want to learn?” Instead of, “Who were you in the past?” And you work with the residents.

There’s research that when people are framed as customers, they look out for themselves, but when people are framed as citizens, they think about the whole. I’ve seen this firsthand, because we did this at Clermont Park [in Denver]. When you start to have people reclaiming their role as citizens, that “I have role to play in this community. I can make a difference here. I have responsibility to my neighbor as well as myself, and I can be part of the solution and come up with solutions together” rather than, “Hey, executive director, you need to fix this for me,” it’s really pretty incredible what can happen.

So I’m big about community-building. When I do training, I tell people that a community-builder has two roles. One, you provide the infrastructure that the community needs, and two, you build the social fabric of the community and bring out the best in everyone. It’s a whole different way of thinking about our world as leaders in this field.

As leaders, we have to dig into what internal bias we have about aging to then work on our organizations. We have to work on ourselves first. I believe every one of us has work to do around really understanding what our internal beliefs are about older people and what it means to be old in this country.

Q: Do you have any idea or any thoughts on when things might return to “normal,” whatever that is, at CLC communities, or any thoughts about what the new normal might be?

A: As far as opening our communities back up and getting back to normal, we are working on plans. For our communities that are regulated — assisted living, skilled nursing — we are anxiously awaiting some new guidance on what vaccination will mean for reopening. But we are very much about what we can do versus what we can’t do.

Before I came to the organization, CLC started a health and happiness committee that includes residents. At our three legacy communities here in Denver, there are residents and leadership who get together and problem-solve and figure out next steps. That has been really powerful.

Q: CLC has had some good occupancy numbers recently. Where it has been high, what factors are contributing to that?

A: At the end of 2020, we still had 100% occupancy in our life plan communities in residential living. And now they’re still well above 90%.

I think what has helped us keep occupancy higher is that, when people couldn’t come to the community anymore, our sales folks started working outside the community and doing home visits — meeting somebody on their porch and talking to them, with social distancing, and also doing a lot of virtual visits. If you look back, 2019 — and I wasn’t here, but from everything I understand — 2019 was spent really building a strong digital presence. So we were ready to meet prospects when they were at home. Right away, we made sure all of our sales folks had iPads, had phone allowances and video meeting accounts so that they could quickly pivot to a new way of connecting with people.

I think our infection control processes also have played a big role, because if you can limit the spread and the length of the outbreak and the seriousness, then you can quickly reopen communities for new move-ins.

And we’ve been doing a lot of automatic calls, keeping people informed of what’s going on at the community when there are new cases. There’s been a lot of transparency, keeping people informed. We’ve been doing Facebook Live events, virtual town halls.

Editor’s note: This is an expanded version of “A Few Minutes With…” titled “Building a strong foundation for the future” from the February 2021 issue.