Aging gracefully


0214 PROFILE1BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG

Vassar Byrd deconstructs retirement.

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0214 PROFILE2
Rose Villa CEO Vassar Byrd
// Photo by Jason Kaplan

BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG

Sometimes Vassar Byrd feels like a loser. After all, when the CEO of Milwaukie’s Rose Villa retirement community measures her 51 years against the decades of experience of the elders she spends her days with, how can the comparison be anything but humbling?

“I find out things residents have done that are astounding,” says the lanky, smoky-voiced chief executive. “They come to us with huge histories.”

In a culture where the elderly are not always valued, Byrd’s humility is uncommon. And in an industry where most executives’ backgrounds are in business, her education in gerontology is also rare. Yet Byrd’s knowledge of and respect for seniors are manifest not only in how she has rejuvenated Rose Villa, but also in how she is remaking the nonprofit continuing-care community as it undergoes a major redevelopment.

 “As I plan for the future, I have to stay connected to the residents,” Byrd says. “For me, that’s where the juice comes from.”

Byrd started down her winding path to Rose Villa as an economist. After growing up in Vancouver, Wash., the left-brained “fast processor” enrolled in the London School of Economics with grandiose notions of leading the International Monetary Fund. 

Byrd quickly learned, however, that “super- high-level economics was just super-boring math.” Post graduation, the extrovert found human connection in consulting, eventually moving back to the Portland area for a job with ECONorthwest.

Then Dorothy happened. Byrd had started volunteering for Meals on Wheels and found herself regularly spending as much as an hour with this last client on her delivery route, captivated by the wheelchair-bound woman’s stories of bucking gender stereotypes in the Pendleton Round-Up. “I blame it all on her,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to have more of this.’”

Chasing that feeling, Byrd went through the state’s certification program to become a volunteer long-term care ombudsman. But she got a rude awakening when the facility she was assigned to monitor turned out to be a foul-smelling, dismal nursing home. After a nursing aide purposely let slip that patients’ medications were not being properly disposed of, Byrd built a case proving the facility’s director of nursing services was using and selling narcotics prescribed to residents. She was in the courtroom when the Oregon attorney general stripped the owners of their licenses for life.

“That all happened and I was unable to just keep going with my regular economist life,” Byrd says. “I called the [state long-term care] ombudsman and asked: ‘If you wanted to run your own alternative, hippie, commune nursing home, how would you go about doing that?’”


 

Start by getting a master’s in gerontology. Byrd moved to Boulder to attend Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired school, graduated in 2001 and held several positions in the field before being brought on at Rose Villa.

Rose Villa’s origin story is a tale of two facilities. The retirement community was founded in 1960 by a splinter group from the board of Willamette View, a facility next door. Unlike Willamette View, which expanded upward into a high-rise, Rose Villa spread outward into a 22-acre campus of attached “cottages” with easy access to the outdoors. That layout puts the continuing-care retirement community in a “small minority” of such facilities and gives it a particular character.

“Not being in a big box makes a huge difference,” Byrd observes of the approximately 200-resident community. “It attracts different kinds of people” — independent, outdoorsy types — “and it influences how people who live here interact” — they’re neighborly but not nosy.

When Byrd arrived, the organization was in need of a shot in the arm. She was the first head of the retirement community not to be designated by his predecessor (gendered pronoun intended — she was also the first woman CEO). The board was disengaged, meeting only quarterly. 

“It was an old-fashioned, top-down, very patriarchal setup,” she says.

Byrd brought Rose Villa into the Information Age and sought to boost morale among staff by being omnipresent on campus. Byrd has also given Rose Villa’s residents’ council an unusually large role in decision making. 

In 2009 a lesbian couple living at Rose Villa told her that the marketing director of another retirement community had advised them to move in as sisters or roommates. Byrd had her staff go through training in issues specific to gay seniors and made Rose Villa’s outreach to the LGBT community more vociferous. “We are loud and clear: The door is wide open.”

Having plucked the low-hanging fruit, Byrd is now working on an estimated $35 million redevelopment that will maximize green space while preserving residents’ privacy by replacing a swath of Rose Villa’s aging attached cottages with efficiently clustered “pocket neighborhoods.” It will also expand the “village center” with new amenities and apartments. As of December 2013, the planned new units, which will increase Rose Villa’s occupancy to about 300, were already three-fifths presold. (Byrd hopes the project will be just the first phase in a larger-scale redevelopment that may include new health centers, a child-daycare center and a hospice.) 

Such changes, Byrd points out, merely manifest Rose Villa’s autonomous, nature-loving spirit.  “I want the outside of Rose Villa to be as amazing as the inside,” she says.

Today’s baby boomers want to be active participants in their community, and continuing-care providers must adopt a more collaborative and respectful management style in order to adapt. Byrd’s understanding of aging and time spent in a community with a long established independent streak position her in the vanguard.

“It’s easier to manage residents, but I want to work with them,” Byrd says. “My ultimate objective is to destroy the stereotypes of aging and restore elders to a rightful place of strength and wisdom.”