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Ep. 132: Donna Moore

Donna Moore’s father encouraged her to launch her own business which led to a 14-year career consulting for corporate America, but a desire to be a COO opened up an offer to serve with Isakson Living. Donna shares about her experience living in a tent for 75 days at a community with residents and team members amid the pandemic lock in.


Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. We’ve got a really exciting show today and an amazing story. We’ve got Donna Moore, she’s the CEO of Isakson Living out of Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome to the program.


Donna: Thank you. It’s great to be here.


Lucas: We’re really glad to have you. Josh, we have a ton of listeners in Atlanta and so I’m really excited to bring this story to them. It’s maybe one that they’ve even heard of before. 


Donna you and your team and your community have made national news. You guys, literally, you did 75 days of a lockdown at your Park Springs community. And before we get into that, Donna it’s an amazing story. Tell us about your career journey and how your love for older adults has grown.


Donna: So I grew up on army bases in Germany and Japan. And to be honest, you don’t see a lot of seniors on military bases. You really don’t see any seniors in military bases. So I really didn’t have exposure until I was an adult. And I’ll connect that at the end of my corporate journey so that you’ll understand why that’s important. So, my career: I started in corporate America the day after I graduated college, hopped on a plane, flew to New Jersey, started my first job and I spent 20 years in corporate America. And you know, I’ve always had a desire to start my own business. 


And one of my last conversations with my father before he passed was what’s holding you back? And he and I talked very openly and honestly, and he said, you need to go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? And I said, I’d have to go back into corporate America. I wanted to start my own business. So I did. And for 14 years I was a process and project management consultant and I was traveling up and down the Northeast coast. And my children were young when I started and then they became teenagers. I have two girls in college now and I was loving the life of traveling and working with customers, owning my own business, but my children were growing up and they needed their mother at home. 


And so I started looking for another position in Georgia, in Atlanta where I live and a friend of mine was the COO of the state of Georgia. And he said, boy, if I got a challenge for you and I accepted an offer to work for the state of Georgia as their state registrar and transform their vital records organization across the state. And I did that for four years. And you know, I did what I was asked to do, which is bring them into the 21st century, make them electronic, improve their processes, teach them how to serve customers. 


And then, I’m never exhausted by my 12 to 14 hours a day, but I was working eight hours a day at the end of that four years just exhausted because I had done everything I set out to do. And so I started looking for my next opportunity and I wrote myself a job description. I wanted to be a COO of something and I showed it to my friends, Andy and Kevin Isakson, who own Isakson Living. And I said, this is the job I’m looking for. Please spread the word. Please tell folks that I want to be a COO because I’m starting a new job search.


And being the great friends that they are, they passed it around and they talked to folks for me. And then they said, well, what about us? What about us? And I thought about it. They thought about it. We knew each other very well. Andy and I had served on boards together. I had done a little bit of consulting for them and I took the offer. 


And what really drew me to the senior living industry is that when I was that young person growing up on military bases where we didn’t see a lot of seniors, when my father retired and I got to meet my grandparents and interact with my grandparents, I just fell in love. My grandmother became my favorite person on the planet. And I enjoyed hearing her stories and I enjoyed spending time with her and learning from her. And even when she passed on, I was her caretaker,  my mother and her sister and I would take turns, a rotation, spending the night with her, taking care of her and her husband. And, you know, I just fell in love with the idea of taking care of seniors. And I wanted the opportunity. So that’s how I made my way to Isakson Living.


Josh: Wow, that is such an awesome story. And I know our listeners are going to love hearing that as well. 


You know, Lucas, it’s interesting, and we’ve talked about this several times with other guests, Donna, how many people arrive into senior living kind of “unintentionally.” And it’s really fascinating to see in each of these stories, much like yours, how the experiences on personal levels and professional levels have uniquely equipped you and us to be in this place at this time to do some pretty, pretty cool things. And obviously one of those really cool things that has gotten a lot of circulation is the story of you just deciding to camp out for a while in the midst of a pandemic and how that has inspired people. So I would dare say that many, many of our listeners have seen something of this story. But what a privilege it is to have you on the show today to talk kind of firsthand about some of that. So thanks for being with us. 


So kind of walk us now that you’ve been in your company. And I’m sure like many people you are moving along just like all of us with nothing like a pandemic on any of our radar just a few months ago, and then we’re faced with even more challenges than we had. And then you responded to it in the way that you did. So can you kind of walk us through the last few months and what that’s been like for you?


Donna: Sure. The journey for us really started in January and February and watching what was happening on the West coast and Washington state. And, you know, as operators we’re used to infection control, we know how to wear PPE. We know how to handle c-diff, but we have never seen anything like what was going on in Washington State. And in February, we started the conversations here with my leadership team at Park Springs, started the conversations of what if this finds its way to Georgia, because, you know, it found its way from China to Washington state. And we just started talking about, are we prepared? What if? How would we? What do we know? What do we not know? And we came to the realization very quickly that this thing was so different that we were not prepared and it kind of scared us in a good way.


And we started doing some scenario planning and the one article that I read out of the Washington Post very early on convinced me that the single important thing I as a leader could do, that we could do at Park Springs was to limit human traffic. And that one seed of an idea became our strategy. And even to the point where we started dreaming and scheming about to what degree can we limit human traffic? And we decided that the best opportunity to keep COVID off our campus would be to lock ourselves in our campus. And it’s radical. And didn’t know if we would get the support from our executives and our owners didn’t know just how we would handle it. How would we manage all of our services? How would we feed people? But we knew it was the right approach for us. 


So we started planning the logistics of it, and I went to Andy and Kevin Isakson and I said, look, this is what we think is the best strategy. What do you think? And they said, it aligns with our mission of loving and serving members. It is who we are and we support you a hundred percent. So in the middle of March, we asked for volunteers from our employee base to live on campus. Now at this time we thought two weeks, outside chance, four weeks. On the first ask, we got 60 people to raise their hand and said, pick me. And by the end of our journey, which lasted 11 weeks, we had 75 folks living on campus and just committed to the mission of taking care of our members because they really are our second family.


And you know, those volunteers raised their hand and said, pick me in the middle of March without even knowing what was in it for them. I committed to them that I would take care of them. I wasn’t quite sure at that time what that meant, but they volunteered because they believed in what we do here at Park Springs. And you know, it was just, it was heartwarming to see that level of level of dedication from our employees and to see our mission, words on paper, to see that mission in action.


Josh: Well you know, there’s, there’s so much detail and so many stories. I’m sure that we could talk for hours of the experiences that you and your team had over that period of time. I had the opportunity at the beginning of my career to live for a short time in a community for training purposes during non-turbulent times. And even to this day, I draw back lessons I’ve learned and I’m reminding myself. Can you share maybe some of the things that as you revisit this time in your mind, some of the themes on maybe leadership or impressions that really stick out to you about this experience?


Donna: I’d love to, you know, the first one is that our household model of care is really a phenomenal way to manage through this crisis because we have households that are set up like homes that have 18 members per household that live in private bedrooms with en suite. And we have a personal chef and a dining room for that household and living areas and outside areas. But that really became not just a household, but became a family. They’re already a family living there, our members that live there, but our employees also became a part of that family because we were living together as a family. And after the first two weeks that we were in those households, we could take off the masks and we could, we could hug and touch and hold hands and, you know, with our members. 


So I think the household model of care with separate entrances and exits helped us to control infection, but it also gave us an opportunity to be a true family. They were away from their families. We were away from ours and we found each other in that experience. The other thing I’ll tell you is the household model of care is more about caring than care. Care implies your physical body, but we espouse that caring takes care of your physical body, takes care of your social needs, takes care of your heart needs and your mental needs and your social needs. And being together in the household, we did that. And you know, I played jeopardy some nights with miss Emma and boy, her long term memory is still there. And, you know, she beat me a couple of times on Jeopardy, I’m not embarrassed to admit. Going outside and gardening together and having picnics outside in our courtyard. And, you know, I gave one of our members a haircut. He was really, really, he felt shaggy and he wanted a haircut so I did what I would do for my father. And so it was those types of experiences that really, we grew together as a family. 


But it is about caring, not just care for us at Park Springs and a Peachtree Hills Place. You know, I challenged some of our members to yard darts. We just really, it was like being isolated with your family, but not isolating.


Josh: Lucas. You know, we’ve heard that term isolation a lot. And while you guys were limiting the traffic, there’s nothing about what you just described that sounds isolating to me. We also hear the term, you know during this time our elders, our seniors, our residents have lacked engagement. That sounded very engaging. You know, I think a lot of things we’re hearing in the space, unfortunately, are outside of our space about our space, that people are scared to come to work. And I didn’t hear that at all. And so these are the kind of stories, you know, Lucas that this is, this is the perfect opportunity to shine a light that Donna and her team have, have really led out in this front. And it’s a great example to us all. 


Lucas: It is, you know, Donna, we really try to showcase the love stories of the industry. And I think that what you have said is profound and it’s something that in our industry, we really know this. I’ve said over and over and over. The thing that I love about the senior living industry is the people in the business. The people that do this work, and you’re one of those great examples. 


So there’s a couple of things that were very interesting to me on the same topic that goes against this meta narrative that senior living or nursing homes that typically has miscategorized, you know, even news articles about your community that’s a life plan community, a CCRC type community, you know, they, they categorize you as a nursing home. It couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s just not the truth. But they try to paint the picture that these are dangerous places. But it’s quite the opposite. And that they’re you know, and especially to Josh’s point that during this time it’s isolating and that’s quite the opposite in your scenario. I think that these are value propositions that congregate care really do have, and it’s at the forefront. I’d love to get your thoughts on that.


Donna: You know, if you’re spot on, you are spot on. Our household model is about being together with family, be it a member or an employee. And even before we were in lock-in we practiced this because we believe in person centered care. You’ve got to take care of the whole person. And you are spot on in that nursing homes right now are scary places as perceived by adult sons and daughters, but not at Park Springs. 


And, you know, we, as I mentioned earlier, our mission really is to love and serve members. And we take that very, very seriously, the type of people, as you know, that are drawn to this type of industry, they have to be loving and nurturing and caring. It’s just in their DNA. 


And you were asking about lessons learned in leadership. I tell you, I really grew as a leader and my biggest opportunity was watching those folks who work for me, my direct reports grow in their leadership. And it was really, really heartwarming to see. I lived in one building with 32 other people. I lived in the health center where we have long term care. We do not use the term nursing home. I lived in the building with long term care and memory care and, you know, to watch my leaders and to watch that team grow and learn and become a family. You know, we did everything. We vacuumed. I had to take a picture of me vacuuming because I knew my family wouldn’t believe it and sent it home. You know,  we serve meals. Our members served meals with us. They were in the kitchen with us setting the table.


You know, I do believe that social isolation doesn’t have to be isolating. I think that’s really, really important. I think you- I feel sorry for, and my heart goes out to those nursing homes that have really suffered this year. You know, COVID, if you weren’t ready for it, it would knock you down. And we got lucky/ We were ready and we did some things that were radical to prevent our members from getting sick. But I think you’re right. I think, I think there’s a way- congregate living. I’m going to steal that. I love that. I love that saying. That is who we are and what we do, and our members are very happy and memory care. I’m not even sure that they were aware that we were going through a pandemic because we tried to keep their lives as normal as possible.


Josh: Well you know, one of the things I think that uniquely equipped, I think probably no one was, felt like they were prepared for a pandemic of this nature, but one of the things I’ve just is evident to me from your hearing, who you are, how you got to, where you are, the mission how the team rallied is that you had a culture in place that was already on board with the mission. So, you know, those kinds of things, I think for leaders, one of the takeaways that I’m hearing is that a focus on that is the foundation that we all really need to strive for in our organizations. That ultimately is what prepares us for whatever comes our way and our ability to gather together around that mission, right? So kudos to you.


So as we start rounding out the show here, I could talk to you all day, but, you know, with every challenge, you know, I believe we have a lot of challenges in our industry, in our culture, in our society. What would be some of the opportunities, or maybe one of the key opportunities you see that through this tough time, this challenging time, we, as people, as organizations and senior living, you know, have a unique opportunity to do right now?


Donna: So I believe as a leader, you can’t do, you can’t ask your, your folks, your employees, your team to do anything you’re not willing to do yourself. And so, you know, part of the asking folks to volunteer is my hand had to go up first and then my ADS and then my directors, because they will follow if you will lead. And so we moved on campus as well as you know, I lived in a tent for 11 weeks. But I believe strongly that you can’t ask your team to do anything you’re not willing to do yourself. The other opportunities that I think that we have as leaders. And I believe strongly in this, and I know some folks- corporate America, doesn’t talk a lot about love, but I’m going to talk a lot about love. 


I believe that you can’t lead them if you don’t love them.And you’ve got to find that one nugget of greatness in every one of your employees and grow it and love it and have them feel that you mean it because I believe very, very strongly that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your members. But they’ve got to feel connected to you. You’ve got to love them, and they’ve got to feel it. 


The other thing that I think is important for industry, and we’re doing this at Park Springs, and this is one of my big ahas as I came out of lock-in and was reflecting on this journey is we are starting a program where our employees or new employees that onboard are going to spend three or four days in either assisted living or long term care, because they have got to understand that as a life plan community, that’s our promise that if you move to Park Springs, we will take care of you for life. That is our promise to you. 


And, you know, it’s easy to work in independent living, but they need to see what the end of life looks like and how we take care of folks, because that is our mission. And so we are instituting a program where they will spend three or four days, maybe a week, working in those environments and seeing our promise in action. That to me, I think, is going to go a long way to maintaining the culture that we’ve created.


I’ll also tell you that the folks that didn’t come on the campus have said to me, boy, I wish I had. There just seems to be this camaraderie and this connection among your heroes, which is what we started calling them. They just seem in tune with each other. They seem so connected. They feel like brothers and sisters. And, you know, I’ve got to find a way to continue to grow that we started with 75, but everybody can be a hero in their own right. Everybody has a place here at Park Springs to do great things. So I think those are kind of my leadership lessons.


Josh: Wow. 


Lucas: Donna Moore, great leader. Great story. We’re so privileged to have you on the program for you to come and share your story about your Parks Springs community, and to share the story about your entire team. So thank you for being a great representative of that, a great steward of our industry. And thank you for when you asked for volunteers being the first one.


Donna: Thank you both for having me today. As you can tell, I could talk all day long about the team here and what we went through and just what a privilege it was to be a part of it. We will never forget it. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to share their story.


Lucas: You got it. Josh, you know, our listeners are definitely gonna want to connect with Donna and learn more. We’ll do that in the show notes and you know, to all the people out in our industry that are working in this capacity, this is a common thread that binds us is that there are so many people, frontline workers in the community that are doing this type of work every day. We all three of us,I know for sure I can speak for the three of us, that we care for you. We’re thinking about you, we’re rooting for you and you are our heroes and don’t ever forget it. So to all of our listeners have a great day. And thanks for listening to another episode of Bridge the Gap.


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Ep. 132: Donna Moore