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The LeadingAge PA Annual Conference is an annual highlight for the Varsity team and this year’s event was no exception. It’s always a pleasure to meet with friends and clients and make new connections. 

We also pay close attention to the trending topics overhead at shows like LeadingAge PA. Here’s a look at four conversations we found ourselves in the middle of during our time in the Poconos: 

CONSOLIDATION – We’re seeing more affiliations, mergers and acquisitions (or at least hearing about them) than ever before, including for-profit skilled nursing systems taking over not-for-profit faith-based SNFs. The mergers and acquisitions market for the senior living industry is incredibly active and shows no signs of slowing. 

WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT – Reducing or eliminating agency support continues to be a priority as communities recognized the importance of developing a skilled workforce and maintaining a stable team to meet the needs of residents.

REIMBURSEMENTS – The delicate balance between providing top-notch healthcare services and managing financial resources is a tightrope walk that retirement communities navigate with precision and care. Keeping pace with reimbursements for the healthcare end of the continuum is a big part of that daily struggle. 

MIDDLE MARKET STRATEGIES – The middle market is a growing older adult population and we’re seeing more conversations around strategies to target and serve those who fall into that often overlooked gap. There are some unique models that are working well. It’s a market that Varsity is intimately familiar with and one that we’ll continue to develop strategies for in the future. 

As the clock ticks down to 2020, we look back on another exciting year for the Varsity blog! Here’s a countdown of our five most popular posts for 2019. It’s a grab bag of hot-button topics, from groundbreaking wellness ideas to intergenerational brainstorms.

5. 18-year-old Jumps Into Life at Senior Community

In this interview with out-of-the-box thinker Rosemary Ramsey, she reveals her inspiration for The Victory Lap, a one-of-a-kind program that pairs youth aging out of foster care with senior communities. Read about an intergenerational program that could change senior living.

4. Overheard at LeadingAge TN: What if…

Our VP of Client Services Derek Dunham takes us inside the “what-if” moments of the 2019 LeadingAge TN Annual Meeting & EXPO. Explore “what-if” moments.

3. Disruption in Senior living — Opportunity or Threat?

From shrinking staff to the growing middle market, Derek Dunham disrupts our world with the highlights of the 2019 PAHSA conference. Get disrupted.   

2. 10 Leadership Secrets From LeadingAge PA

This series chronicles the year-long journey of LeadingAge PA’s Fellows in Leadership program. In this post, Brian Mailliard and Sakkara El share what they’ve learned at the halfway mark of their adventure. Learn the secrets of leading well.

1. When It Comes to Wellness, Nothing’s off the Table

Our most-read post of the year was a fascinating conversation between Becky Anhorn, the inspirational wellness director at Meadowood Senior Living, and Rob Smith, Varsity’s creative director. Read about a groundbreaking approach to wellness.

That’s our countdown of top posts for 2019! Stay tuned for more fresh content in 2020, and please contact us if you’d like to do a guest post or be interviewed for an upcoming blog.


I was fortunate to attend the LeadingAge PA Fellows in Leadership graduation ceremony in Allentown, PA. I came away with some serious leadership envy. It was obvious that during this year-long program, the group had become extremely tight knit and the Fellows had grown very comfortable around one another. You could tell they really appreciated being able to bounce ideas off their new network of peers and having very supportive and approachable leaders within each group.

At one point, there was an exercise where people went around the room and commented on each other’s strengths. They gave thoughtful and sincere answers and you could tell that their words were from the heart.

The sentiments shared at the larger meeting were echoed by two people I spoke with in more depth: Diane Burfeindt, Vice President of Population Health at Presbyterian Senior Living, a coach, and Brian Mailliard, CFO at St. Paul’s Senior Living Community, a Fellow. Both were part of the same small group.

As we discussed the year-long journey, the two remembered back to the first day. At first, Brian was hesitant to try the program. He didn’t know what to expect. “My hesitation went away – day one – minutes into the first session,” he said. “The program changed my whole approach to leadership.”

During the year the group was together, Diane found it interesting that many participants underwent changes and growth in their responsibilities and titles. “Change can be scary, even if it’s a positive thing,” she said.  “Luckily, they had the group to fall back on. Typically, you don’t have people to talk to about work. This was a safe place where people could talk about their challenges.”

Brian seconded that thought. “Before when I would have a difficult situation or tough conversation at work, I felt like I was out on an island — who could I ever talk to that had that experience? Now that we’ve gone through this program, we can pick up the phone and call someone.”

The group plans to keep on being that support system for one another through phone calls and meetings. “One of the most important parts of the leadership academy is what happens after it’s over,” Diane said.

Both Diane and Brian agreed that leadership isn’t a destination, it’s a lifelong journey.

“It continues to remind me every year – leadership is a process and you’re never done,” Diane said. “It’s growth and a part of life – it’s not separate from your personal life. If you think you know it all as a person, then you sort of stagnate. It’s nice to be with the Fellows and the class and get out of your daily routine and remind yourself of that.”

“This program is only one tool,” Brian added. “The biggest realization is that you’ve got to always be working at leadership. Whether it’s reading or conferences or signing up for specific programs — if you don’t make it an intentional part of your career then you’re going to get caught up in the day to day and put it off.”

One of the most fascinating components of the program was the final project each Fellow had to present. Brian completed his on a program called Share Care, an innovative housing solution for low-income seniors. Stay tuned for more details in a guest post from Brian.



Two very different leaders have just reached the halfway point of their journey in the LeadingAge PA Fellows in Leadership program. For all those who aren’t able to attend, we wanted to share ten unexpected things they’ve learned about leadership along the way.

Brian Mailliard is the CFO at St. Paul’s. Sakkara El is the Director of Personal Care at Masonic Villages. As they hit the halfway mark of their journey, here are 10 invaluable insights Sakkara and Brian have gained about leadership so far:

  1. Shake up your thinking. “I came into the program with my own ideas on leadership, much of which was inculcated during my youth,” said Sakkara. “Now I realize that there’s so much more to it. My overall thinking has expanded.”
  2. Be aware of your impact on others. “The program is teaching me to be more aware of myself, and how my actions and reactions can have an impact on those I’m tasked with leading,” Brian said.
  3. You don’t have to have all the answers. Brian has been amazed by the sheer volume of leadership information that is out there. “It’s not always about knowing all the answers,” he said, “but having resources to reach out to and learn from other individuals that are experiencing similar situations.”
  4. Praise your team. All of the Fellows underwent a DISC profile, a test that assesses personality styles. “It was eye opening reading page after page about my leadership style,”  Sakkara said. She has made a conscious effort to implement some of the leadership suggestions that came from the profiles, such as praising the team she directly manages more often.
  5. Be an advocate. The Fellows visited the Capitol Building in Harrisburg to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of advocacy, including interacting with government officials and their office staff.
  6. Execution is key. Sakkara found one presentation on the work of leaders enlightening. “The lecturer explained the importance of crafting a vision, building alignment and championing execution,” she said.
  7. Look outside yourself. Both Sakkara and Brian were inspired by a visit to  Messiah Lifeways in Mechanicsburg. The community is very innovative and 100% resident focused,” Sakkara said.
  8. Look inside yourself. “”It has been an introspective journey in terms of continuing to learn, grow and evolve in my leadership style,” Brian said.
  9. Build relationships. Current fellows, past fellows and LeadingAge PA staff attended a mixer at the LeadingAge PA offices. “Meeting new people you can learn something from is always a plus,” Brian said.
  10. Don’t wait to be a better leader. What would Brian tell people who are thinking about participating in Fellows in Leadership? “The sooner you can do it, the better.”



At the recent LeadingAge CA conference, the buzz was around the changes in how mature consumers are using their homes.  Those changes also mean different expectations for their new residences. Here are three design elements your community must have to attract Boomers:

  1. Space that works

More residents are continuing their careers. Therefore, they desire more usable work and office space. It’s no longer enough to provide the corner of a room for computers. These days, prospective residents are looking for more formal office space and built-in furnishings to support their ongoing careers.

  1. Indoor-outdoor living

Common space for socialization is no longer sufficient. Prospective residents are looking for open floor plans and spaces that transition to outdoor areas. so they can entertain groups of friends and relatives.  A place to party in the privacy of their own space is a common request.

  1. A home with a heart

Along with higher-grade finishes, Boomers want open-concept, larger kitchens and kitchen islands. An open layout can replicate what happens in their own homes, where everyone congregates in the kitchen to socialize.

Architects and marketers are sharing notes in an effort to create more pleasing environments for a younger set of prospects. Although the shift toward younger residents is slow at best, the mindset and expectations of prospects — regardless of age — feels younger.



The first session of LeadingAge PA’s 2019 Fellows in Leadership program was a huge success. I caught up with coach Diane Burfeindt, vice president of population health and housing at Presbyterian Senior Living, and participant Brian Mailliard, chief financial officer of St. Paul’s, to talk about the kickoff of the year-long program, hosted at SpiriTrust Lutheran’s The Village at Sprenkle Drive in York, Pennsylvania. “The other coaches and I were just amazed at how quickly the group came together — there was a really good energy,” said Diane. Brian agreed. The program was “even better than I anticipated it would be,” he said. Diane and Brian provided some top-level takeaways about what they’ve learned so far:

1. Leaders aren’t born; they’re taught. One surprising course insight debunked the myth of a natural leader. “We learned that anyone has the ability to be a leader, but not everybody is taught to be a leader,” Brian said.

2. The right decision may not always be the popular one. One of the challenges Brian has shared with the group is the realization that making necessary decisions for the health of the organization, may not be viewed as positive by everyone. “I want to be the likable person, and sometimes decisions need to be made that aren’t popular,” he said. Advice from the group: It’s okay if people disagree with you. And you’re not alone — most leaders deal with this issue.

3. It’s essential to see trends in action. The group toured the new assisted living neighborhood at The Village at Sprenkle Drive and heard about trends from Steven Jeffrey, chief strategy and innovation officer at Garden Spot Village, home of a five-apartment co-housing residence, just one of their innovations in senior living.

4. Titles don’t matter. The people in Diane’s small learning group work in a variety of areas, from finance to personal care to operations and strategic initiatives. “I think you can tell we didn’t talk about titles,” Diane said. “Regardless of experience or level or age, we learned a lot from each individual. It’s the diversity of thought and perspective in the learning circle that makes it so valuable.”

5. Other leaders face the same challenges you do. “It was reassuring to learn that the issues I’m dealing with on a daily basis aren’t limited to myself or my community,” said Brian. “Other people are going through the same things I am.”

6. Leading takes even more work than you’d imagine. Of course, leaders put a lot of effort into their jobs, but it’s essential to carve out time to focus on leadership development. “When I left the first session, what I was thinking to myself is how much study, time and thought people put into being a leader,” Brian said. “It’s something that you work at.”

Both Diane and Brian are looking forward to reuniting with their small group. “I’ve always found Fellows in Leadership to be a very personal journey,” said Diane. Brian seconded this sentiment. “I never slowed down before to think this way or contemplate leading in this way,” he said, “but I’m very glad to get the opportunity.”

Between sessions, the participants will be meeting virtually, getting advice on issues that arise at their communities and working on individual learning projects. “It’s always interesting to see how the group evolves through the year,” said Diane. Stay tuned for the highlights of the next session of 2019 Fellows in Leadership, taking place in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, May 15–18.

The 2018 LeadingAge Tennessee Annual Conference & Vendor Showcase is now in the books, and it was a great event. Gwyn Earl and her team deserve major kudos for pulling off a fine event. We, at Varsity, were pleased to host the conference Lounge, as well as to exhibit during the Showcase. In between these times, we took the opportunity to check out some of the sessions and engage with our colleagues in the volunteer state. As is tradition here at Varsity, we’ve wanted to look back on three major themes we picked up from the event and share them with all of you who may not have been able to attend.

1. The need for conscious communication has never been greater.

For us, Dr. Donna Van Natten was an excellent addition to the conference line-up. She specializes in nonverbal communication and led a couple of sessions on that topic. Of course, the Varsity team made for easy pickings as she provided examples of both positive and negative nonverbal cues. While this information is great in the business world, it also has major applications for those working directly with residents. Being conscious of your nonverbal communication — and being able to read the nonverbal communication of others — could make the difference between a good interaction and a great one. When was the last time you thought about how the placement of a chair in the room could help someone make an important decision? Dr. Van Natten has, and her excellent session really made us think about our communication strategies.

2. The death of the dining room

Much discussion was had around changes to the dining experiences created by providers. One of this year’s LeadingAge TN Innovation Awards went to a provider that dramatically changed the dining experience for its residents. Gone was the dining room, institution meal trays and bland plate covers. The provider replaced this service with localized dining stations throughout the community, manned by chefs who prepared foods mere steps from residential areas. Now, residents wake up to the smell of bacon sizzling and warm maple syrup, completely changing how they dine. This is a trend that we are seeing nationwide, with more intimate and customizable dining experiences being provided to those in assisted living and higher levels of care. It’s heartwarming to see the changes developed in the independent living space being transferred to other campus areas, as well as the level of impact this is having on resident satisfaction.

3. Retirement as a destination

If you haven’t been to Nashville recently, you may be unaware of how much it has become a tourist destination. One of our Varsity team members described it as the Times Square of the South. This rang especially true as we heard stories from providers describing how new residents were moving great distances to a community in Tennessee. From the Northeast to Los Angeles, people are retiring to Tennessee in droves. While some of these people may not be moving directly into Life Plan Communities, many are opting for 55+ communities that could easily lead to a provider’s doorstep. Tennessee is an especially attractive place for retirement — warm summers, mild winters, beautiful scenery, thriving food scenes and fantastic entertainment options all combine for a great independent retirement lifestyle. This, coupled with the recent influx of young families to the area, could create a retirement boom as older adults decide to move closer to their younger family members. Many providers with which we work rely on the local community within 20 miles of their property for most of their new residents. However, if a campus is appropriately positioned, with some creative marketing, it could go from a regional provider to a national retirement destination.

Once again, we want to thank all of our friends for a great conference experience in Franklin, Tennessee, and we wish all the best to the providers of that great state as they continue to live “Life on Purpose” as members of LeadingAge.

It’s August. The summer temperatures are soaring, and families are working to squeeze in one last vacation before school starts. For us at Varsity, August marks the last leg of the summer conference season. Our team has crisscrossed the country, visiting LeadingAge and aging service conferences from coast to coast. Like you, we learn something new at every one of these events. We also get excited about what the future holds and how we can be part of it. Then, winter rolls in, our daily workload increases, and those big ideas get bogged down in a mental mire from which they rarely return.

In speaking with a colleague, I was asked, “How do you keep yourself and your team inspired and excited long after a LeadingAge conference is over?

It’s a challenge we all struggle with — and one that I’ve been thinking more about since having that question posed.

Perhaps one of the best tactics I’ve used is our series of “takeaway” articles from each event. Sure, they are informative for our clients and friends, but they also provide me with a handy reference to remember what we found most exciting at each event. Over the course of the year, our team keeps track of these takeaways and looks for larger, nationwide trends. Then, as the year closes, with conference season far behind us, we gather and discuss the global trends that we have noticed. We distill the most important points that then become part of our business mindset going forward. For us, regular check-ins like this help to keep the conference energy up and to remind us of what we are excited about.

Therein lies the best and most difficult way to reengage your team members and build their excitement. You have to give them a time and an opportunity to be excited. You need to carve out a half day or a full day of time wherein they can ignore their daily tasks and get excited about the future and share their conference experiences. Doing this three to six months after an event is perfect, as it allows your team members to reflect on what they’ve heard and also see how it relates to your business.

For instance, we recently wrote about hybrid homes here on this blog. This is a concept that first came to us more than a year ago. As we’ve heard more about it, our team has gotten more excited. This excitement has led us to connect and grow our relationship with RLPS Architects. The company’s work helps to drive excitement in our team. Likewise, our marketing abilities help its team understand how the mature market is using the spaces it creates. By coming together to talk about those we serve, we energize each other between major events.

You simply can’t do everything, though. Conferences can offer hundreds of great, innovative ideas, but the reality is that most organizations can only handle one, maybe two, of these ideas at a time. By engaging with your team members and letting them decide which idea excites them most — and figuring out how to execute that idea — you can really keep the conference energy flowing through personal buy-in.

Over the next few weeks, our team is hitting the road for Florida, Colorado and Tennessee — you can be sure that we’ll be posting takeaways from all of these events. Just like you, we are working to harness these ideas to build our team, with the plan to better serve our clients, and through them, their residents.

A conference is a once-a-year event. It’s up to you to harness that excitement and energy for the remainder of the year to inspire your team.

Last week was a busy one for the Varsity team. Over the course of four days, we visited both coasts, with the team enjoying a successful annual conference and expo in Spokane for LeadingAge WA, followed by a top-notch annual event in Hershey, put on by LeadingAge PA. As usual, we sharpened our pencils and took notes about what we’re hearing from providers, pundits and other aging services experts across the country so that we can share them with you!

Before diving in, however, we’d like to congratulate Adam Marles, who has been appointed as the new CEO of LeadingAge PA. Adam is a progressive and visionary member of the aging services community, and we are looking forward to the ideas and innovations he’ll bring to the table. At Varsity, we’ve been working with LeadingAge PA to help launch its new website, and we’re excited to be a part of its next chapter!

Now, on to the takeaways!

1. Skilled nursing regulations

Whether you’re in Tacoma or Philadelphia, the changes to skilled nursing regulations remain an ever-present bogeyman that haunts providers in our space. It seems that, just when organizations feel they have a handle on compliance, authorities change the regulations and guidelines again, causing a new scramble to ensure providers are up to snuff. If we have to describe this trend in one word, it’s “weariness.” Providers feel like they are running a rat race that never ends; they are constantly trying to keep up and are very concerned about falling behind. As a marketing and branding group, these regulations fall out of our area of expertise, but we empathize with our skilled nursing providers who are trying to find a way to make their compliance jobs easier. Kudos to those organizations that have strong nursing leadership and that continue to be leaders in this space, such as Presby’s Inspired Life and Elim/Augustana Care.

2. Mindset matters

Motivational speakers are a key component of LeadingAge conferences. They help the leadership in our space feel refreshed and energized about the work they do. One common theme we heard from these speakers on both coasts is the importance of mindset.

Let’s face it — working in aging services can be stressful. As care providers, we see people at their most vulnerable, and we have to deal with death far more often than we’d like; however, our residents rely on us to remain upbeat and positive. One bad day can quickly turn into a dour week, which impacts everyone around us. As LeadingAge Washington speaker Dan Diamond put it, “Every day, we choose our mindset.” What was the mindset you chose for yourself today? How is it affecting those around you? Being conscious about our attitudes and mindset can help us become better leaders for our teams and organizations.

3. What’s next?

There is an unquenchable thirst within the aging services space for information on “what’s next.” It seems like as soon as someone explains what he or she thinks is “the next big thing,” someone else raises a hand to say, “That’s great, but what’s after that?”

We’d all love to have a crystal ball and be able to predict the future of our marketplace. At Varsity, we have some good ideas of what’s coming down the pike because of our insights into generational values and our breadth of experience across the country, but what’s next for Washington might be very different from what’s next for Pennsylvania.

For example, in the western states, we’re seeing providers tackling social policies like never before, such as LGBTQ issues and legal cannabis use. Over on the East Coast, providers are more interested in innovations in construction and technology and how it will change their product mix going forward. At some point, focuses will shift as each area looks at how the other has engaged and managed the challenges at hand.

While the travel between these two conferences was exhausting, the value of seeing LeadingAge members in two very different parts of country was immeasurable. We thank both LeadingAge WA and LeadingAge PA for their hospitality, and we look forward to continuing our partnerships and initiatives with them.

In the coming weeks, our team will be at LeadingAge Florida and LeadingAge Tennessee, so stop by and say hello!

LeadingAge Colorado celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in style with this year’s conference and exhibition, under the theme “Looking Back, Leading Forward.” Part of the Varsity team was on hand for the event and we thoroughly enjoyed the program.

We were especially taken with the keynote speaker, Reggie Rivers, a former player for the Denver Broncos, who shared his sports experiences and related them to the leading of teams. Reggie’s wit and humor were infectious and his presentation was packed full of great lessons. We wanted to share three takeaways from Reggie that we think could benefit any leader of teams in the aging services space.

Establish a metric for success.

Organizations accomplish goals because they keep their eye on the proverbial prize. While each individual person, team or department in an organization may have goals; they should all be contributing to the ultimate metric of success. Every person within the group should be able to clearly understand how their work helps to accomplish the overall mission and advance the organization.

This point really struck home with us at Varsity. As partners with our clients, we are keenly aware of how our work directly aids a client in achieving their goals and pushing their organization forward. We will definitely be asking our future partners to articulate their “metric of success” and working to demonstrate how we are contributing to that goal.

Focus on your area of control.

Aging services is a big and complicated space to work in. Every day we are confronted with new challenges and opportunities. They could range from a disappointed family, to an unexpected survey, to celebrating a 100th birthday. It can be easy to let ourselves get caught up in these moments and feel like we are constantly responding to issues instead of being proactive. To Reggie’s point, if we spend our time focusing on the items we can control, we’ll end up happier and closer to our goals.

Prepare to fail and instead focus on incremental wins.

If we succeeded one hundred percent of the time, the world wouldn’t need us. We must recognize, as people, that we are always learning and growing. We are going to fail our team. Our team is going to fail us. It’s how we respond to these failures that demonstrates our organizational culture, values, and understandings. On that same thought, we should also celebrate incremental wins. If your goal is 100% occupancy, don’t delay celebration until that number is hit. Instead celebrate every new resident and contract signed, as that’s an incremental win that is pushing you further towards your goal.

Reggie demonstrated the real world impact of these three points thorugh a story about the Broncos. The team shifted their philosophy for rewarding success and in doing so, made sure that EVERYONE “wins” when the team does well on the field. The leadership of the team made sure that every role in the organization understood how their job contributed to the overall team performance. This caused an absolute transformation in attitudes and, interestingly enough, the team went on to win several Super Bowls after numerous losses in the Big Game.

We congratulate LeadingAge Colorado on a successful conference and a productive half-century of advocacy for seniors in the State. Keep up the good work and we are looking forward to the 2019 conference!


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