Mary Ousley

The McKnight’s brands honored dozens of dedicated caregivers, industry trailblazers and a veritable Who’s Who list of influential veterans as part of their third annual Women of Distinction event.

Over two days of virtual festivities, attendees from across the country feted the 2021 class of honorees with a celebrity-filled awards show and educational panels on a range of timely topics.

Devin and Jason McCourty, twins who played defensive back for the New England Patriots for the past three years, sent a “huge congratulations” to senior living and skilled nursing staffers for their work throughout the pandemic at the May 18 online awards presentation. “All of the sacrifices you’re making, just the things that you’re doing to help others, it is just tremendous. Keep up the good work and keep it going,” they said. 

This year’s distinguished class included 19 Hall of Honor inductees, 17 Rising Stars and, in a new category, 15 Veteran VIPs. Winners were nominated by their peers and selected by a national panel of judges consisting of long-term care stakeholders.

“We congratulate these truly deserving industry veterans,”
McKnight’s  Editorial Director John O’Connor said. “Their hard work and unrelenting dedication has helped make life better for countless residents. They are an inspiration to us all.”

Just as the McCourty brothers did, many of this year’s nomination forms — as well as speakers who later praised the winners — homed in on valuable contributions the industry’s female leaders made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Thank you for your tireless work to provide our loved ones in long-term care facilities with high-quality care,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “Despite so much loss, women working in senior living and care communities will help us bring light to the darkness of the past 14 months, so I thank you for that good work.”

Honor of a lifetime

Mary Ousley, RN, chief strategy officer for long-term care giant Pruitt Health and a past chair of the American Health Care Association, was named the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award winner. The award recognizes her contributions to long-term care over the course of a decades-long career.

Ousley is a former facility owner and the namesake of AHCA’s Mary K. Ousley Champion of Quality Award. She has held top management positions at several care chains and was an architect of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987, the landmark nursing home reform law.

“Beyond her decades of experience and accomplishments, what makes her such a phenomenal leader is her compassion, intellect and charisma,” PruittHealth President and CEO Neil Pruitt Jr. said. “She has the unique ability to take very complex business problems and break them down to understandable steps to a clear solution.”

Ousley is seen as a uniter. She is credited with getting AHCA and an alliance of secession-minded chains to continue as one, and with unifying providers and governing regulators to form new quality initiatives.

“She has not only led the sector in our quality efforts; she has often pulled us to places we needed to be but were reluctant to go,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of AHCA and its sister organization, the National Center for Assisted Living. “Her work has benefited millions of staff and residents, and providers have learned that great quality is also great business.”

In accepting her award, Ousley said she was “almost speechless” as she reflected on how fast the years in senior care had passed.

“I thought that perhaps they have gone so fast because,
with very few exceptions, I
have enjoyed every day of
being a part of the post-acute and the long-term care profession,” she explained.

Expert guidance

Ousley was one of several winners to take part in a series of educational webinars intended for everyone in the industry, not just women, on the second day of the event. She joined four other industry leaders in sharing “Secrets to career success.” 

In a wide-ranging conversation, the women offered personal stories and tips for success, ranging from mentorship to succession planning and establishing organizational culture.

Being a risk-taker, critical thinker and someone who values evidence are keys to success, said Robyn Stone, DrPH., Leading Age’s senior vice president of research. “To my mind, critical thinking around every process that you are engaged in is really important,” she said. “We are in a world where we need to be able to differentiate between homegrown things that get pulled out of the ear and processes that really have an evidence base and strong data and knowledge behind them.”

In another session, providers shared how they’ve launched successful diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, addressing a key cultural awakening that has affected senior living and skilled nursing providers, their staff members and residents.

“You just want to make sure this doesn’t become a ‘check-the-box’ program,” Kai Hsiao, CEO of Eclipse Senior Living, said during the session, moderated by
McKnight’s Senior Living Editor Lois A. Bowers. “You really want to put some meat on the bone,” he added.

President and CEO Cindy Baier noted that women make 80% of healthcare decisions for their families. When she started at Brookdale, however, the board had just one woman and no minorities. Today, she said, the board is 40% female, and 14% of members consider themselves racial minorities. The organization is working to be more inclusive throughout its ranks, she said.

“I believe it’s a business imperative … because diverse teams have higher creativity, they have higher profitability, they’ve got better employee engagement, and they have better company reputations,” said Baier, a 2020 McKnight’s  Women of Distinction honoree. “If you think about what that does, it gives you a more collaborative working environment. It speaks volumes to your employees and your customers, so they can see themselves reflected in your leadership team and your associates.”

Finally, long-term care executives presented “Addressing pandemic challenges with success,” during which they provided a top-level view of how their organizations have met COVID-19-related hardships and shared best practices.

David Pomeranz, chief operating officer of RiverSpring Living, noted the challenge of adapting to ever-changing guidance, protocols and expectations.

Losing workers to quarantine requirements presented a major challenge that required constant communication, he said.

“It was the moment your worst fears were realized,” Pomeranz said. “We had a daily huddle to see who we had and figure out what everyone could do that day.”

This year’s Women of Distinction event was supported by Diamond sponsor PointClickCare and Paycor, which hosted additional sessions on workforce development and lifting up the next generation of  industry leaders.