Her dream wedding planned for Italy in 2020 was canceled due to Covid-19, but Sunrise Senior Living ED Christina Candido didn’t let the curve balls stop the celebration. She explains lessons learned during the pandemic while she and her husband work in healthcare. Plus, we discuss a 108-year-old resident’s story on the Kelly Clarkson Show & memorable moments shared with residents.
Lucas: Welcome to the Bridge the Gap podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. A very exciting love story on the show today. We want to introduce the executive director from Sunrise Senior living out of Middleton, New Jersey, Christina Candido. Welcome to the show.
Christina: Hi, thanks for having me.
Lucas: We’re really excited to talk to you. The senior living industry as you well know is a very small world, right? A lot of people we know each other and as social media has advanced in our industry over the past years, we stay connected on platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram and others. So you’ve come across my feed a number of times because you’re so outspoken about your passion for older adults, which really resonates with us. But recently you posted a photo of your wedding and a number of other things. So we’ve got some great topics to talk about. So before we get into the wedding, tell us how you got into this business and why you love older adults so much.
Christina: Sure. So I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do growing up. I knew that I loved working with seniors. I wasn’t sure in what capacity. So I actually figured I would pursue a medical degree because I said, okay, I want to help people. Maybe I’ll be a gerontologist. So I was studying for the MCAT, hated it, worked at a hospital, just wasn’t really for me. So during a winter break, I went overseas and I lived in a live-in Alzheimer’s facility in Northern Italy. And I volunteered and that’s where I was like, this is what I want to do. So came back, I went for my master’s instead, I graduated with a master’s in counseling with a focus on geriatrics and family counseling. And then I went back overseas and volunteered again. And this time I did in-home care and I worked in facilities again in Italy, but in a different area. And that’s how I got into it.
Josh: Whoa. So, and like we just went through some, a lot of stuff and I, you just totally lost me when you said you lived in a community in Italy, like let’s rewind this thing and go back and explain why Italy, like tell us a little bit more about that experience. I’m very intrigued.
Christina: Sure. So I love traveling. And at the time I knew I wanted to volunteer. So I found an organization called United Planet that had volunteer trips all over the world in different capacities. So some worked with children, some with animals and very few the elderly, actually, this was the only one that they had that involved the elderly. And it just so happened to be in Italy, which was fine by me because I studied Italian, I studied abroad, I speak the language. So it was kind of killing two birds with one stone. I was in one of my favorite countries and I was doing work that I wanted to do.
Josh: Compare, contrast a little bit. Obviously you’re administrator here in executive director in a community, just highlight a little bit of the similarities and differences that exist between here in the States senior living type of community and what you experienced in Italy.
Christina: So truthfully there aren’t many similarities. There are definitely a lot more differences. And that was difficult for me when I did get into the industry here, because upon my return, I started working in assisted living and I just assumed they would be the exact same as they were in Italy and they are not. There’s a lot of things that are different. Of course, structurally, aesthetically, the buildings are much different. They’re much more open. There aren’t really as many locks on the doors, if you will. They’ve kind of got different philosophies there, but they also live like kings and queens. So it’s such an honor to work with the elderly there. The amount of dignity and love that they’re treated with is just not that we don’t treat our seniors here with dignity and love, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just on another level there and the respect and just everything about it was just so loving and such an honor really to be there.
Josh: Wow. That’s incredible. Have you taken anything, carried anything with you from that experience into your community?
Christina: Yes, very much so. So they’re also very big on touch there, whereas in the United States in general, we’re kind of like, we like our personal space. Whereas there touch is really an innate human need, right? So especially when you have something like dementia or Alzheimer’s, they’re very big on touch. That’s something that I definitely bring back with me and I try to lead by example. I’m very affectionate with my residents. I’m very loving with them and I think that that’s important and then little things. So I really can’t change much structurally or aesthetically in the communities that I’ve worked in. For instance, they turn the lights off at night or they at least dim them in the hallways and their staff wear pajama-like uniforms as opposed to having the bright LED lights above. And then we wonder why people are wandering at night or sundown. It’s confusing to tell the difference between day and night time when it always looks the exact same inside. And when the staff always looked the same. If they’re not wearing something like pajamas, it’s going to be like, well, why are you telling me to go to bed? Obviously it’s daytime. So little things like that. I definitely try to bring back with me.
Josh: That’s really, really cool. So tell us a little bit more about how your journey has been over the last few years in senior living in your home there and at your community.
Christina: So I started in sales and like I said, it was a little bit difficult when I first started because it was so different than what I expected. I really thought that it was going to be so much more like what it was over there. Even the food, of course, there’s no comparison, it’s Italy, but assisted living food is usually not much to be desired anyway, whereas over there it was like outrageous. So I started in sales. I did love being in a community. I took a brief break, I thought, okay, I want to kind of learn the legal aspect of things. So I worked at an elder law firm and we started up a care component there, which was really cool, but it was evident like almost immediately that I just missed it.
It was great in the sense that it was a nine to five. It was true. Nine to five. We were out the door coats on, you know, I thought this will be better for my quality of life because in the community I’m here normally 11-13 hours a day. But I just missed it. I really missed being with the resident. That’s what I love most about it. So I got back into it as executive director and that’s kind of how I ended up here. It’s been about when did- it was 2014, my most recent trip to Italy. And then at the end of the year I got into sales and then pretty soon thereafter got my CALA and became an ED.
Well, I can tell from your recent posts that has really bled into the relationships that you’ve developed with all of your residents. I love the stories that you post. So talk to us about a couple of things. Number one: planning a wedding during a COVID crisis and a pandemic, and then how that changed your plans.
Christina: Sure. So as you’ve probably seen in my post, I really do eat, sleep and breathe this. I try to include my residents and in everything there’s really no, nothing, no such thing as TMI, I think with them because they love being part of stuff like this. So even last year my brother had gotten married. I brought some residents with me to get my dress tailored as I was a bridesmaid and they just really enjoy those kinds of things. So when we were planning the wedding, I remember saying to my now husband, at one point, when is it supposed to get stressful? I remember people saying that it’s so stressful to plan a wedding. Like this is so fun. This hasn’t been stressful at all because I was including them in everything. So they helped me to pick out the invitations. I brought samples. They helped me look at different venues. Of course we were planning remotely cause it was going to be over in Italy. And then when I went for my dress, I’ve got so many laminated pictures because I print large versions of these photos and I laminate them and take them around to the residents. So they were a big part in every step.
And Italy was truly going to be a symbolic ceremony, which our guests didn’t need to know because to get married legally, there is kind of a pain. So the legal ceremony was planned to be at the assisted living. So it was just going to be our immediate families and the residents. And we would just have a cake and, and fun stuff like that. So up until like February, planning the wedding was amazing and it was, they were very much included in that process.
And then COVID happens or COVID got worse. And I actually was in Italy the weekend of the outbreak because I go there frequently and it was just there. I was there for a short weekend trip. And when we came home, it was like, everything changed. They actually quarantined me. I couldn’t come to work for the two weeks. And I remember being like, can this really be, how long is this going to last for? Because I’m fine. You know, I don’t have any symptoms. This really wasn’t something we were seeing here much at the time. But everything changed after that. So planning became very different. The residents were then quarantined and isolated, of course their apartments, which they still are. I was in total denial. I did not cancel our flights until the day before we were supposed to leave just in case there’d be some chance that we could at least go, the two of us. And my husband would say like, we need to let the guests now that we’re not going to be doing this anymore. And I just really, I just didn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
So it was really tough. It was hard too, because it was on the back burner, the wedding, because he’s a physician, he works in hospitals and in acute rehabs. And I obviously was running at that time. I was at a different Sunrise. I was up in North Jersey where I’m from in Morris Plains. And there were those first few weeks where we didn’t really know what to do, slept in separate bedrooms, took all our clothes off when we would come home, but then we thought, okay, this could go on for months. So we really can’t live like this as a newly engaged couple figuring out our wedding plans. We’ve got to kind of have an alternative. So it was a really stressful, sad time. It’s not, it’s really not how you’re supposed to feel as an engaged couple I’m sure. But then it worked out.
Lucas: So talk to us about the ceremony. So you pivoted, you didn’t go to Italy, but you kept the formal, I guess, legal wedding there at your community, right?
Christina: No. So that was actually at a church. So the residents are still isolated, so they wouldn’t be able to take part in it, unfortunately. So that was planned in about two weeks. Our original date was September 13. As we were getting closer, maybe it was more like three weeks. I said, well, if we’re going to schedule a plan B, I’m not going to do it for the 13th, just in case we can still go. So very last minute we booked church on the 20th, which was a week later. And it was really just with family and closest, closest friends. And it was, it was really stunk, leading up to it because it was so sad. It wasn’t at all what we really wanted to do. We couldn’t involve the people that we really wanted to involve. So I was kind of stalling on even really planning anything.
And then we met with our priests the week of just to kind of finalize things. And I remember we both said to him like, can we just do it now? Do we really need witnesses? Can we just like, get it over with now? I really don’t want to do it. The people that I want to be there most aside from my family and his family can’t be there. So we really just wanted to be married and kind of, I hate to say, get it over with, it’s not that we want it to get it over with, but we just wanted to be married and not have to do something that really wasn’t what we had always hoped for.
Lucas: Since you work with older adults. Did you find it helpful, those relationships you developed as you were navigating all of these very emotional decisions at a much younger age obviously than the residents, did you lean on them?
Christina: Absolutely. Absolutely. Working in senior living is really like having a hundred grandmothers and grandfathers it’s the best in so many ways. It’s obviously very challenging and the worst than others, but it’s the best in so many ways. So I definitely did lean on them and I constantly seek their advice and their insight about anything, not just this, but they really do put things into perspective for you.
You know, we talked obviously more about the marriage itself as opposed to the day of that being important. And again, just putting the relationship, the marriage into perspective and the day is something that comes and goes anyway. And they know that we’re going to plan to do something together once we can. So that’s something to look forward to, but even my dress, when I had purchased my dress, I purposely, I got it in New York city and I purposely had it scheduled to be shipped here because I was going to do my fittings with them. So I would bring them on the bus. We would go for my fittings together. So it was a really weird experience having to go for my fittings and gloves and a mask alone, no one was allowed with me at all. So I think we’re probably going to do the whole thing over again, to some degree. I just don’t know how yet.
Lucas: Well, that’s fun. I mean, what’s more fun than having one wedding? Having two, right? With the same people right. So Josh so Christin has got these amazing love stories. We talk about you know, you often you’ve coined the phrase, you know, the love stories of the industries, and this is fascinating to hear because it’s really a true love story, but Christina has so many different things going on. This is not even the biggest event that’s going on at her community. So you recently, Christina, you were on the Kelly Clarkson show along with one of your residents. Tell us about that story.
Christina: Yeah. So our resident, Anna Del Priore just turned 108 years old, which in and of itself, it’s absolutely incredible. But on top of that, this year she survived COVID-19 and when she was a young girl, she also survived the Spanish flu. So to say that she is resilient would be an understatement and she’s just such an incredible positive, loving woman. So we really wanted to celebrate her for her birthday and that kind of brought on some national attention because we did a very big parade for her in her honor. We had her on a throne. It was Gatsby themed. So we were all dressed up in costume. It was honestly, I said after that was one of the best days of my life. It was before my wedding, but I said, that was the best day of my life and it’s not even my birthday. It was just so beautiful and touching it. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, honestly. So Kelly Clarkson wanted to meet Anna, which is what we did.
Josh: So cool. Well, so many fascinating stories and I’m so glad that you guys celebrated her, what an awesome thing to celebrate her long life, her health, endurance through a couple of things, what a perspective I’m sure that that resident has. And I think that’s something that we often just don’t share enough of those kinds of stories. And many times when we’re going through things like you’ve been through this year with mega events in our life, we think the world’s coming completely to an end and we can’t go on because of things. And then you talk to some of these residents and hear the things that they’ve been through and they’re still enduring and you’re just like, wow, you know what I don’t have it as bad as some people have had it in what an interesting perspective that gives us a love it.
Christina: Yeah, absolutely. She really is incredible. And even just interviewing her and asking her what her secret is, it’s just really to always be honest, to do good to others. And that’s her, I mean, she’s one who is always trying to help the other residents at 108 herself. And it just reminded me: So my brother back to my wedding really quick, he had said something in his speech or with some like Bible verse that he was referencing. And I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of, if you just live your life, you lose it. But if you give, if you serve others, then your life is really eternal. And it reminds me so much of Anna because that’s her. She’s always asking, even during her birthday, are you guys, do you need anything? How are you? Are you okay? Are you enjoying yourself? She’s always worried about others. And she’s just so selfless and just such an incredible person.
Lucas: We have a lot of younger people that listen to our program just because of the medium of the podcast. There’s great diversity in our industry from different ages and backgrounds and a whole bunch of different things. So talk to some of those younger people out there. We have a contingency of listeners that are looking to get into the workforce. They’re interested in aging, they’re interested in aging services, senior living, those sorts of things. What would you say to those people that are kind of maybe on the fringe that they’re looking into this that maybe they’re not quite sure what to expect? Maybe they may be intimidated, they have questions. What would you say?
Christina: So I would say that you know, as you’ve seen, I’m very active on social media and very passionate about what I do, because I think that there is such a stigma with working with the elderly. And it’s not exactly the most desired job, no matter the capacity. So I really try to change that for people. I try to be that example to show that it can be such a, I mean, I’m biased, but I really think there’s nothing that could possibly be more fulfilling than working with seniors. And I think that if you’re considering getting into the industry, I think it’s something that’s at least worth trying. And I think there’s no reason to be intimidated. There are people just like everyone else they’ve lived their lives. I don’t think that I never try to censor anything with them.
I do a travel program for them monthly, for instance. So I would take these short trips every month just for a weekend and film them and then bring them back and show them. And I always give my spiel in the beginning, which is, you know, I thought about censoring things, but I’m not going to, because you’ve lived your lives. You’ve probably done things even crazier than what my crazy girlfriends and I have done. And there’s no reason to kind of try to keep things from you or to treat you as though you’re a child or, or that there are things that you shouldn’t hear or know about. I think that being honest and always having the best intentions in doing the right thing and just being loving, treating them as you would want to be treated and always considering that they could be your parents or your grandparents is key. And I think that if you do those things, you’ll be successful.
Lucas: Now, just to round out the show, I’m going to put you on the spot just a little bit. Can you tell us either an example of a great piece of advice that you’ve been given from a resident or just a story, maybe a moment in time in your career that is unforgettable, that you could share with our listeners.
Christina: Oh man. I don’t know about advice. A moment in time I think that was really unforgettable. So my right hand at my last company, which was Atrium she was my director of sales. She’s actually now taken over for me at Sunrise Morris Plains. So coincidentally, she thought she might be pregnant. She and her husband were trying to get pregnant. And we had, obviously you’re not supposed to have favorite residents. We had a few favorites one who was really like our grandma. So when she thought she might be, we bought a pregnancy test and said she has to be the one to read it. I think I may have even posted that. I’m not sure if I posted that video, but it’s incredible. So we came up to her room and took the pregnancy test there and she was the one who read it and saw that she was pregnant. And that was a moment that was just something I will never, ever forget because to share in that joy with her. And she had never seen a pregnancy test. So we laughed too. She is a real firecracker. So we’re like, what do you mean? And she’s like, no, we just didn’t get our period. We started getting pregnant. We didn’t have pregnancy tests. So it was just such a fun, incredible moment that even though it wasn’t even me, I was the one who was there with them. It wasn’t even my unborn baby, but it was just something that was, I will never, ever, ever forget it.
Lucas: Josh, I love these stories and these moments. And we talk often about the, you know, the passion behind this industry and this Christina is a great example of someone that’s living this out. And so authentic these real life stories. It’s the people in this industry, it’s the people in the business that have always captivated me. And then it’s the resident interactions that I get to hear about. And also I get to experience myself as I get to enter into these communities. Josh, I know that that resonates with you as well.
Josh: It does. What an awesome show. Thanks Christina, for taking time with us today. And I gotta admit, when Lucas sent me this post and all I saw was like wedding and things, and I’m like, Lucas, you’re going to make me talk about just like weddings on the show. I was like, what are we, what are we doing here? So this was so fascinating.
Christina: I don’t blame you.
Josh: Congratulations on everything that has happened for you this year in spite of the unfortunate circumstances, but you’ve been making the best of it. And I love that you are actually doing life with your residents rather than just the job to you. And thanks for sharing some of your experiences with us today.
Christina: My pleasure. Thank you guys so much for having me.
Lucas: You’re so welcome. And I’m going to say this to our listeners, Josh appears like he’s got this hard shell, but I’m telling you, he is very soft on the inside. Don’t let him fool.
Josh: You’ve just got to dig deep, lots of layers and you can get to it. Yeah.
Lucas: That’s a-whole-nother show, right? Well, Christina, thanks for spending time with us. We’ll make sure that we connect in the show notes to you on your LinkedIn channel and other social media and that everybody can go to btgvoice.com and get all the transcripts and connect with us on social and YouTube. And we hope everybody’s having a great day. And thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.