Editor’s note: As part of the 40th anniversary of McKnight’s, McKnight’s Senior Living and McKnight’s Long-Term Care News are recognizing 40 notable newsmakers. Each week, the brands will highlight a new, high-profile leader from the past four decades. See the rest of the series to date here.

Four decades ago, residents with lower-acuity needs who could cover their care costs usually lived in nursing homes. But not anymore.

As for the person perhaps most responsible for their large-scale exodus to senior living communities? It’s none other than former Sunrise Senior Living Chairman and CEO Paul Klaassen.

In 1981, Paul and his wife, Terry, opened their first Sunrise community in Oakton, VA. Dissatisfied with existing eldercare options, they set out to create an alternative that emphasized choice, comfort and a sense of belonging.

The Klaassens helped build the first community both figuratively and literally. They stayed on as residents for more than a year.

Although Sunrise hardly invented resident-centered care, the company refined and liberated the concept in ways that were both progressive and scalable. Nor were aesthetics ignored. Victorian-style architecture gave first-generation Sunrise communities a distinctive look and feel.

As the assisted living model boomed, so, too, did the firm. Currently, the company operates more than 320 communities across the United States and the United Kingdom, making it one of the five largest senior living operators in America, according to the ASHA 50 list published by the American Seniors Housing Association.

But there were growing pains along the way as well. Most notably, an accounting scandal that became public in 2007 almost bankrupted the firm. Sunrise later would be acquired in 2013 by Health Care REIT, an Ohio-based healthcare property owner now known as Welltower, in an all-cash deal worth $845 million.

Paul stepped down as CEO in 2008 but remains an adviser to Sunrise. He also played a major role in launching and supporting the Assisted Living Federation of America, now known as Argentum. He was inducted into ASHA’s Senior Living Hall of Fame in 2019.

The Klaassens found success by building what amounts to a better mousetrap. Variations on that theme are continuing as never before.

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