Patricia G. Will accepts her Lifetime Achievement Award Thursday night from Travis Palmquist, senior vice president and general manager of senior care for PointClickCare, the diamond sponsor of the live Women of Distinction event. Credit: Tori Soper

Connections to people from all walks of life can launch careers, according to Patricia G. Will, the McKnight’s Women of Distinction 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree.

More importantly, Houston-based Belmont Village Senior Living founder and CEO Will said, once established in your career, adopt a little kindness to those still climbing the ladder, and “don’t eat your young.” 

Will shared insights and advice Friday at the W Hotel in Chicago during the fourth annual McKnight’s Women of Distinction event. This year’s festivities were live after two years of being held virtually. In addition to recognizing women making their mark in the fields of senior living and skilled nursing, women in home care were recognized. This marks the first year newest McKnight’s brand, McKnight’s Home Care, was part of the event.

Will’s remarks kicked off Friday’s McKnight’s Forum in a session titled “More lessons learned along the way,” during which she traced her career path into senior living. Additional sessions included panels on addressing the caregiver shortage and achieving career success.

The Forum followed Thursday’s awards dinner, during which the fourth class of Hall of Honor inductees and Rising Stars were recognized along with the second class of Veteran VIPs. The newest category, the McKnight’s Spirit Award, paid tribute to acts of bravery, courage and determination.

A ‘lightbulb moment’

Patricia G. Will talks about her career Friday with McKnight’s Senior Living Editor Lois Bowers. Credit: Tori Soper

After a career as a financier and medical real estate developer, Will said, her personal experiences in family caregiving, combined with her professional ideas, led to a second career in senior living when she was in her 40s.

In the 1990s, Will’s mother-in-law was in the early stage of what later was determined to be Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition was misdiagnosed several times, often leading to stays in a psychiatric facility. 

Will and her husband committed to finding a home caregiver and bringing her in-laws into their home, which led to new challenges and revelations. 

“I thought, ‘I can probably make something better,’” she said, calling her decision to pursue her own path in senior living a “lightbulb moment.”

“It was serendipitous, almost,” she said at the McKnight’s Forum event.

Will said she took it upon herself to engage with a then very young Alzheimer’s Association, as well as educational institutions doing breakthrough brain research, including the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the Hilton School of Hospitality in Houston. 

She built Belmont around fostering cognition — every community has a dedicated neighborhood for secure memory care, and its assisted living communities have programs for those with mild cognitive impairment.

“That dedication to memory care and fostering cognition has never gone away, only increased over time,” Will said. 

Without much of an industry or capital formation for a senior living industry, Will said, she also had to contend with being a woman in a field where she had no experience and few people to tap as experts. A Harvard Business School graduate with distinction, she said she began a career as an entrepreneur because she couldn’t get on the interview list for companies that recruited from her business school.

She joked that when she launched her first senior living community, she took on $15 million worth of debt and offered her building and her two sons as collateral. Then she walked to the parking lot and “cried my heart out” due to fear.

Although her mother-in-law informed the launch of Will’s first community, she didn’t live to become a resident. Will said her own 93-year-old mother also influenced a redesign when she entered hospice care in one of Will’s communities.

“She gave me the critique of a lifetime,” Will said, adding that she used the notes from conversations with her mother to inform apartment redesigns moving forward, including ensuring that bathrooms have counter and storage space for women who want to primp.

“Living it through the eyes of your own, through your mother and father who raised you, it had a profound impact, even with all of the experience we have, on what we do and how we do it,” she said.

Lessons learned

The biggest lessons Will learned, she said “as a totally inexperienced female in senior housing, and a female with not enough net worth to carry myself,” was to rely on people from other walks of life who knew her professionally. 

“The connectivity we have with people who know you, who can relate to you, who know your accomplishments from other walks of life — that’s what really launched me,” she said.

Will said the senior housing and care sector is special for women — the vast majority of residents, patients and workers continue to be women, daughters and daughter-in-laws traditionally bring loved ones into communities, and women understand resident needs in the most intimate ways.

“We have a tremendous competitive advantage, ladies,” Will said to female attendees at the McKnight’s event. “I think this is an industry that lends itself to female leadership.”

Although women still face challenges — especially on the capital side — Will said there is “no challenge we face that we can’t overcome.”

‘Don’t eat your young’

Cultivating, growing and retaining the workforce is the greatest challenge facing the industry, the Lifetime Achievement Award winner said, adding that the members of the long-term care workforce who showed up during the pandemic under unimaginable circumstances are now exhausted due to worker shortages.

Along with acknowledging their exhaustion and the need to expand efforts to recruit workers from other industries and modify immigration policy, Will said that industry veterans need to be a little kinder to their younger counterparts and “not eat their young.” Doing so will help retain workers, she said.

As to workers struggling to balance their professional and personal lives, Will said, “It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to put ourselves back in the shoes where we were once upon a time and help people with their logistics. It wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now.”

Will said she continues to see women in the sector reach a high mark in middle management, but they don’t reach that last leg of upper management due to C-suite fears that they will leave to raise families.

‘We have to get over it and accept that women are an important part of the industry and workforce, and we have to take them all the way to the top,” Will said, adding that commitment, drive and integrity are the most important traits to look for in potential employees.

“With those ingredients you can do a lot,” Will said, adding that it also is important for companies to invest in training and providing new opportunities to employees who express a curiosity for other aspects of the businesses. 

The future

Looking forward, Will said, there is scarcely a sector out there with demand drivers that looks like long-term care.

Will said she started her career serving the Greatest Generation, is still serving the Silent Generation and is beginning to see the first of the baby boomers. 

“As a sector, I can’t think of something that has a demand curve as powerful as this one,” Will said, adding that women have a natural advantage in the sector. “By nature, we may be great businesswomen, but we’re also nurturers. The ‘special sauce’ of this sector is doing well by doing good.”

Will said she would encourage anyone looking for inner satisfaction and the ultimate need to be served to jump into senior housing and care with both feet. And looking back, she said, she would make the same career choice again “even after the pandemic,” because it’s a collaborative industry.

“I think that collaboration was already there [before COVID-19] — we have a comfort level with one another,” Will said. “We’re all trying to make a better industry. A sustained crisis put that on steroids.”

McKnight’s awards ceremony

Will accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award during a Thursday evening McKnight’s ceremony.

Travis Palmquist, senior vice president and general manager of senior care at McKnight’s Women of Distinction Platinum sponsor PointClickCare, introduced Will, saying that she made her mark by ensuring that “getting older wasn’t the end of the road, but a new opportunity.”

Will remarked that “it takes a village” to curate the real estate for a senior living community, get it financed and bring the passion, heart and hands to the front lines.

“It’s all of us together that really are the work in progress that is our industry today and that contributes to my achievement,” she said. 

Morgan C.B. Miles celebrates her award on Thursday. She was one of 54 Women of Distinction this year. Credit: Tori Soper

Award winners amped up the energy in the room during the celebration with their individualized theme song selections that played as they approached the stage to receive their awards. Among the picks by award recipients were Bill Withers’  “Lean on Me,” Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive,” David Bowie’s and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and a selection of songs from Beyoncé.

The Forum followed Friday with three educational sessions featuring panels covering the biggest challenges facing senior living communities, skilled nursing facilities and home care providers, as well as skill development, organizational culture and career advancement. Future McKnight’s Home Care articles will detail those sessions.

PointClickCare was the Diamond sponsor of this year’s event. OnShift and PharMerica were the Silver sponsors. The Bronze sponsor was Reliant Rehabilitation. Table sponsors included Dreamscape, Gojo/Purell and Sound Physicians.