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To help aging America, it's time to think beyond nursing homes, says Ecumen chief

Star Tribune - 2/2/2019

Feb. 02--Shelley Kendrick has spent nearly three decades working in health care and senior services. On Monday, the native of Flint, Mich., will take over as chief executive of Ecumen, a $147 million provider of senior housing and services. The Shoreview-based nonprofit serves about 15,000 people each year in independent living, assisted living and skilled-nursing locations as well as in private homes. The company also provides hospice care, a fast-growing part of the business. Although the bulk of operations are in Minnesota, Ecumen provides training and operational support to senior-housing communities in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Michigan, Idaho, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee. Kendrick has been with Ecumen since 2012, focused on the housing and operations.

Q: How are you feeling as you step into this new role?

A: Extremely excited. It’s a time of change and innovation in our industry with a growing older adult population. At Ecumen, we have a legacy of service dating back to 1862 serving immigrant women and children. That service has continued to evolve over the years and will continue to evolve.

Q: What are some of the challenges ahead?

A: Our goal now and into the future is to empower people to live in ways that matter most to them. That’s going to mean something different to the next generation. In the past, the only solution was the nursing home. We have a proven record over the years of driving innovation and anticipating changes.

Q: Tell me about some of these new service models.

A: Abiitan Mill City is an urban dwelling in the core of downtown Minneapolis where we integrate cultural and academic experiences. It has a curated range of planned activities and events including art and music, sporting events and educational and wellness programs. It’s independent living, with assisted living and memory care on one of the floors. It does not have a Medicaid contract at this time. We also offer a cooperative option called Zvago, which gives people an opportunity to continue to own. The first Zvago co-op opened in Minnetonka in 2017 and there are several in various stages of development in Stillwater, St. Anthony Park, Apple Valley and Duluth. We’re selling them before we can even build them. People are asking for lifestyle choices and a variety of care and service options. Some want to be around arts. Others want opportunities to exercise or participate in sports events. Others want a homelike feel, where they can garden.

Q: Leaders in senior housing and services have long been concerned with a growing labor shortage, which is compounded by shrinking immigration and wage pressure from low Medicaid reimbursement. How is Ecumen addressing this?

A: It is a challenge, and it will be a challenge going into the future as more adults need care. We have a number of programs, including internships and scholarships. We have a program through a grant from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies in which we are training the trainers who work in the nursing schools to help nurses learn about senior living. The goal is to teach people that senior living is cool to work in. We’ve had an internship program with Detroit Lakes High school, which is across the street from an Ecumen community, for nearly 20 years where students explore jobs in social work, nursing, marketing and other fields.

Q: You are stepping in as CEO after longtime chief Kathryn Roberts becomes “CEO emeritus” and will work on philanthropic development. How do you see that relationship working day to day?

A: I’m extremely grateful to Kathryn. She’s been a helpful mentor and leader for our organization and me personally. We see this as an easy transition, business as usual. She got us all on the right track with Ecumen and I’m continuing to grow our legacy. She and I have a great working relationship. We’re both focused on empowering people and our mission. And we both like focusing on innovation. That’s what our customers are asking for: new ways, new solutions.

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