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Enhancing Elder Care

Enhancing Elder Care

Former economist Vassar Byrd found her calling at Rose Villa in Portland, where she sets a high bar for elder care.

There was a time when Vassar Byrd wanted to be president of the International Monetary Fund and help foster global economic stability. Then, she got the bad news.

“I didn’t realize you had to be French,” she says.

Still, when you consider the drive it takes to pursue a goal like that, it’s little wonder that Byrd has made her mark as CEO of Rose Villa in Portland, which contains the first-ever, zero-energy senior-living neighborhoods on its campus. Next year, Byrd will complete the final phase of a 10-year, $166-million expansion that will include two independent-living neighborhoods and a 24-hour, long-term-care building.

With energy-efficient fresh air systems, innovative heat recovery systems and rooftop solar paneling, the neighborhoods within the 22-acre Rose Villa campus will produce a net-zero-carbon footprint.

CEO Vassar Byrd speaks with residents at the Rose Villa senior living community in Portland.

When she came on as then-executive director in 2006, Rose Villa presented a dilapidated physical plant with no investment in infrastructure. “There was no time clock and only one computer,” Byrd recalls.

So how does an economist with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics end up running a senior living community? It begins when Byrd returned home to Portland after stints with the U.S. Department of Commerce and a trade industry group in Washington, D.C., left her burned out. “I finally got sick of being there,” she says.

While working for ECONorthwest, Byrd volunteered with Meals on Wheels, spending her nights and weekends providing nourishment and company to elders. Enamored by the lifetimes of stories she heard, Byrd decided to become more involved in elder care, eventually becoming a state-certified ombudsman inspecting nursing homes.

One day, she reviewed a small Portland nursing home and was horrified by the smell of human waste in public areas and residents left stranded in wheelchairs. A nursing assistant pulled her aside and told her to investigate the director of nursing services and the building’s administrator. Within six months, both staff members lost their licenses for selling the residents’ medications.

Later, while having a beer with her best friend, Byrd mentioned the nursing home and how its residents deserved better. Her friend’s response? Either shut up or do something about it.

That final push empowered Byrd to leave economics altogether and pursue a career in a new path: elder care.

“I wanted to have an alternative, hippie commune, crazy-ass community that was different from anything I’d seen,” Byrd says. “And that’s actually what we created at Rose Villa.”

As she planned Rose Villa’s overhaul, Byrd joined Vistage in 2010. She found the outside perspectives refreshing and quickly developed a rapport with her Vistage Chair at the time, Wade Clowes. “He was a smart guy, and I could challenge him. And he knew how to deal with that,” she says.

One of my personal missions is to restore elders to the rightful position of a leader in their societies.
Vassar Byrd

With the help of her group and Chair, Byrd cleaned up sloppy practices and unprofessional managers, and prepped her plan. Finally, in 2014, phase one of construction began. As Rose Villa transformed, Byrd occasionally hosted group meetings, judging the campus’ process by the shocked looks on her fellow members’ faces.

2021 Member Excellence award winner Vassar Byrd, photos courtesy of Rose Villa

But the more important looks belong to the residents who pushed for the net-zero-energy installations, Byrd says, the ones who don’t mind getting the mail in the rain or starting a food composting program. “Those kinds of people live here already,” she says. ”So I can be dragged forward by them, or I could charge with them into the sustainability world.”

Where she once saw decrepitude, Byrd now sees a community as bright and as spirited and as lively as its inhabitants. And she couldn’t be happier.

“One of my personal missions is to restore elders to the rightful position of a leader in their societies,” she says. “My job is to support them from underneath and let them keep living large for as long as they want to.”

Passion Play
The Unbeaten Path

Vassar Byrd wanted to help elders “live large.”

Result

Byrd left a career in economics, became CEO of Rose Villa and built a state-of- the-art senior neighborhood with a net-zero-energy output.

Key Takeaways from Jim Plymale, Vassar’s Chair
1
Life’s too short to waste your time and talent. Do something that you love.
2
It’s never too late to pivot to your passion and make a huge difference in the lives of others.
3
No matter how smart and accomplished you are, you can always learn and grow from the perspective of others, especially when their only agenda is your success.
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