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A Q&A With Eleanor Alvarez, A 2020 McKnight’s Women Of Distinction Hall Of Honor Inductee

October 2, 2020 | Lisa Fordyce

_QA With Eleanor Alvarez McKnights Women Of Distinction Hall Of Honor Inductee (1)I had the pleasure of chatting with the very impressive Eleanor Alvarez, founder and president of The Ganzhorn Suites and LeaderStat, and a recent McKnight’s Women of Distinction Hall of Honor inductee.

The Ganzhorn Suites provides memory care services using an evidence-based approach, purpose-built design and a specialized team; and LeaderStat is a firm that supports post-acute and senior living facilities with interim and executive leadership solutions designed to stabilize buildings and provide quality care.

I love the opportunity to talk with people like Eleanor, those who feel that working in senior care is their destiny and have such a palpable passion for what they do. I could hear in her voice just how deeply she cares about her work. She truly embodies what we refer to as the “caregiver spirit.”

As you’ll learn from our interview below, it was her purpose and personal experiences that fueled her to take some big risks, and her perseverance and conviction that made them fruitful.

Could you tell us a little bit about LeaderStat and how you’ve had to pivot since the onset of the pandemic? And what is your role in the company?

LeaderStat provides leadership and staffing resources in the healthcare community. We provide temporary and permanent leadership, still mostly in assisted living centers. We had started out totally focused on the post-acute world and now are really expanding into a broader healthcare market.

Then in mid-March, we started providing COVID-19 relief staffing resources for communities and facilities across the country – CNAs, LPNs and staff RNs to take care of residents while primary caregivers are being quarantined. This is a new thing for us, but we saw that this was a very important need, especially in the post-acute world that was hit so hard by the virus.

We literally brought on new teams where we were working six days a week, 12 hours a day for a good six weeks while we were trying to get up to speed and support these buildings, acting as a resource center with pretty extensive consulting services to help with clinical reimbursement, clinical compliance and now, infection control.

In my role, I'm the innovator, the driver, the person who has the next crazy idea, and it's a lot of fun. Our team here is very committed to supporting those who are giving care and really doing some amazing work out there in their communities, especially now. It is a tough time to operate a post-acute center and we just hope we can help.

Could you take a minute or two and describe the story behind The Ganzhorn Suites and how that came about for you?

Very early in my life, I remember visiting my great-grandmother in probably one of the first nursing homes ever, and just having this very strong reaction to what was happening to her and how she was changing. She was a whole different person than what I had remembered because of the Alzheimer's disease that she was going through. The staff were all great, wonderful people, but nursing homes were not at all what they are today. I remember thinking there's got to be a better way to do this. And then I went on to be a volunteer in a nursing home when I was in high school, so it's always been part of my life.

In operating facilities and going back to these early memories, I really believe that people with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia deserve a better type of care. Their psychosocial, emotional and behavioral needs – even though they're not clinical per se – are so strong and we can provide better types of care to these individuals. That's what The Ganzhorn Suites is all about; looking at a more therapeutic model for caring for people with dementia.

And it works. We've seen the outcomes where people are a little more alert, they react and respond to family members more than they had when they were in a more institutional environment. So, I know that we can make it better. And that's what we're trying to do. I think that's why The Ganzhorn Suites is so important to me because it really fills that part of my soul. I just really feel like I'm a caregiver at heart and that's the best job there is.

What would you say your secret is to managing your workload and all of the creative and innovative ideas that you're working on?

Well in both organizations, I have an incredible leadership team and have worked with most of the individuals for a long, long time. We have a lot of longevity; we share the same values and we work hard. We know that we're here to do really important work. They’re the people that I can count on to really make things happen.

The second part is we have strong established systems and processes, which I think is very important for any organization trying to grow and scale. We use a management process called the Entrepreneurial Operating System, EOS, and it's based on the book Traction. It's a great way of setting goals, objectives, systems, processes, communication programs, and most importantly, a system for accountability. So, we think the EOS has strengthened our team and given us that foundation for growth.

What are some of the most fulfilling aspects of your career and working in the senior care profession in general?

Well, my favorite job ever was being an administrator. I loved running a building. I just felt like my meaning and purpose in life was fulfilled. And caring for our elders is just an incredibly enriching experience. This is one of the most difficult times of anyone's life and for their families, and to be there and make it a little bit better, was super rewarding.

Also, working with staff members and helping them find that same sense of commitment, dedication and fulfillment was really wonderful to me. I went home every night typically feeling exhausted but knowing that I had done something good. And I miss that from time to time. I think that's why The Ganzhorn Suites is so important to me. It really fills that part of my soul, and I really feel like I'm a caregiver at heart. And that’s the best job there is.

What are the top challenges that women with the desire to move up in the industry might face today and how would you recommend going up against them?

It's such an interesting question because we're in a field that is predominantly women. I'm not exactly sure what the numbers are, but I bet it’s around 90% women because it is at the facility level clearly. But, as you go up the chain of command, there's a point where it flips and becomes much more male dominated.

Women really need to move into those corporate roles where they have a seat at the table and are making decisions about how resources are deployed. Getting there takes a combination of things. I think it's mentors. I think it's education. We need more women with MBAs and finance degrees.

We also need to help women with public speaking so that they can have that commanding persona that gets noticed and gets asked to sit at the table. And we need many more women on public boards of companies that are important in the post-acute world. When you look at the board members of a lot of companies, especially the publicly traded companies, there are not as many women as there are men. We have to start working in that direction where we are significant in the places where key decisions are being made.

How would you summarize your leadership philosophy and what do you think makes a great leader in the long-term care profession today?

I think in our profession especially, we need caring, compassionate, strong and decisive leaders. We're in a field where we need to make a lot of tough decisions; we need to think on our feet and oftentimes make those decisions fairly quickly. So, we need people who are decisive, but know how to put their value system in place when they're making those tough decisions.

I think women are especially good at that. You have to have a lot of endurance to be successful in this field, especially now. It was tough enough operating post-acute centers before COVID, but now the challenges are really fierce. We need to be able to step up to this, but never lose sight of why we came here.

If you could credit one or two moves that you've made during your career that got you where you are today, what would those be?

I worked for a couple of large publicly traded nursing home companies along the way. That experience was invaluable in that what I learned and the people that I met have been very influential in my life. But moving outside of that really helped me to test my skills and figure out how I can grow and move in ways that I didn't think I could. Starting LeaderStat was challenging in many ways, but it just seemed like a response to a need that was there and happened because I knew that facilities needed this support.

When I started The Ganzhorn Suites, it was much more difficult because I had to go and raise capital, and I had never done that before. Raising that money was hard, but I felt like I had tested myself in a way that I couldn't have in a corporate environment. It really did force me to step out and do something that was very challenging. After going through a lot of rejection, I said, "At the end of August, I'm going to get this done." And with that, I got my five investors, all of whom had an emotional connection to Alzheimer's like I did. At that same time, I was able to secure a bank loan that was very favorable and it finally all came together.

I know we spoke about COVID-19, but what are some of the other top challenges facing our industry and profession?

Well, I think payment for services is huge and I think we're in a place where in the next 10 to 20 years, we have got to figure out a better way to pay for a whole array of services to care for our elders. I think we as a country we really need to come together and say, We care about our elders; we want to provide a range of services and want to make sure that that care is delivered in the best of ways.

And then there are the workforce issues. While we have this expanding older population, we have a decreasing number of people in the workforce. And so, our numbers of available caregivers are shrinking. It's going to be a continuous challenge to find enough people to care for our elders. So, we have to make this a profession that people are honored to join. We have to encourage people to join us because they want that same fulfillment and they believe in caring for others.

We're going to have to address workforce issues in a very serious way in the coming years or we really are going to have another crisis. I think some of the technology resources and support around staffing need to continue to grow, but we've got to put the people and the technology together to get better,  faster solutions.

If you had to predict what impact the pandemic will have on the industry or our profession as a whole, what do you think that it will be?

One, I think that caregivers will not jump from facility to facility as much. At The Ganzhorn Suites, our turnover and overtime have never been lower because people feel safe and secure and they're not willing to jump ship and go to the next building.

Beyond that, our residents in nursing homes have been the number one target for this disease. As a result, a lot of facilities are obviously seeing declining occupancy and it's going to take a while to recover from that.

It's also going to become increasingly challenging to continue to care for people in semi-private rooms. I think we'll look at more private rooms, different HVAC systems with better filtration and more outdoor areas in our environments. I think we will also change our view on building design and be much more conscientious of infection control practices and proper PPE use. We're a society and a culture that has not worn masks very much. And I think that wearing masks in our facilities will become much more routine instead of an exception.

Our whole world is shifting. And certainly, it's very important in our senior living and our post-acute care facilities that we look to ways to innovate and adapt now and in the post-pandemic world.

I’d like to thank Eleanor for taking some time to share her journey, successes and positive outlook. And many congratulations on winning this prestigious award!

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About Lisa Fordyce

Having started her career as a caregiver and expanding into operations leadership, Lisa has held senior executive operations positions at national senior housing organizations, leading overall business strategies and day-to-day operations to deliver quality resident care and services. She is one of the most widely recognized operations leaders in the senior living profession and is known for her ability to make an impact by emphasizing both business and quality care. Prior to joining OnShift, Lisa was Chief Operating Officer at Senior Lifestyle Corporation, leading the overall operational strategies. She has held operations management positions with Emeritus Senior Living and ARV Assisted Living and served as an Ohio Assisted Living Association Board Trustee. Lisa is also an avid volunteer, raising money for Lungevity - Breathe Deep Newark, working as a teacher volunteer for preschool and k-3 children, and participating in a Helping Hands program at her local church.

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