Improving Senior Living: An Interview With Jennifer Thorson


In exploring senior living options for the first time, older adults and their families might feel apprehensive. Experience Beyond Measure correspondent Mike Lawson recently sat down with Jennifer Thorson, Executive Director of The Harbors Senior Living Community of Fridley, in Minnesota, to throw some light on the subject.

In her role at The Harbors, Thorson oversees the full range of operations, including managing employees, meeting prospective residents and their families, and handling the paperwork for leases. "I make sure that everything is streamlined and running flawlessly, but I get to do the fun stuff, too."

Nontraditional Beginnings

Thorson came to senior living via a nontraditional route. "About 12 years ago, I was in radio advertising sales. I was managing a cluster of radio stations up in Pine City (Minnesota) and loved it. I love marketing. I love talking to people. I love selling products, and one of my favorite businesses that I worked with was senior living."

"I would often find myself just wanting to stop in just to say hi to the Executive Director and see some residents. I felt this sense of comfort and feeling like I belonged there. After about a year of doing [radio] advertising proposals, I talked to my husband, and I said, you know, I think I want to change the industry I'm in. So, I found a position for a marketing director for a senior living campus closer to home. I got the job, and I loved it.

After being in the job for a while, Thorson realized it was the right place for her to be. "It was it was my calling being in this industry."

Describing herself as a "go-getter", Thorson soon set her sights on a more prominent role. "I'm like two years into this job, and now I wanted more. I became really close friends with the housing director over there and said, I want this, I want to be an Executive Director."

Asked what about the Executive Director job that interested her, Thorson said, "I want to have my own personal spin on an entire community and bring my visions to life." Setting a goal for becoming an Executive Director in 5 years, Thorson achieved her objective sooner than expected. "Well, that actually sped up within six months, and I found the Harbors Senior Living. It was still being built when I got the position. I have been here from the ground up, and I love it. It is exactly what I want to do, where I need to be."

Random Acts of Kindness

logo-med_harborsThorson sees a hallmark of her style as, "…being able to do little surprises and do random acts of kindness. I love just being able to make somebody's day." Her positive approach also comes through in her relationships with employees. "I go through life with the 'yes' approach. I tell all my employees, there is never going to be a request too big that I want you to feel intimidated coming to me for. I want to be able to empower people and also have that small family-like feeling. I want people to feel like they're just a branch off of my family tree."

Creating a warm sense of family is important to Thorson. "I was able to implement and execute on my visions of being one family and being able to keep that smallness and that tight-knit community together at all times without having it feel too 'corporate'.

An Integrated Approach to Community

One way Thorson achieves this close community feeling is the way residents with dementia live within The Harbors. "I do not like that if you have Alzheimer's or dementia, you have to go to the specific wing or the specific floor, and that's where you live the rest of your life. You only get one shot at life, and you deserve it all the way through the end of life. You get your dignity and your privacy, and the respect that you deserve. We don't have a dedicated Memory Care floor. [Those with dementia] are able to live amongst everybody else here, which is huge for my residents. You see people who have moved from communities where they were on a specific memory care floor, and they were just very mum and isolated and didn't open up. They move here, and they're interacting with so many different residents that they're coming out of shells."

Thorson sees this as not only a benefit for residents but also for their families. "It helps the families, too. When you're hit with that diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer's, [the number one thing] is denial. It's just something I can't believe my mom and dad have it. It's denial, and so being integrated and having them choose whatever apartment they want in this building gives them that sense of peace."

Unlimited Options

Thorson sees her approach to senior living as providing a multitude of options for residents. "It all comes back to the family approach. You will often hear our activity director spending one-on-one time with our residents. If we had a big group activity, if somebody was just not feeling up to doing that or not, you're going to see her playing or putting a puzzle together or doing some kind of an art project with them or doing a baking experiment with them. It truly feels like coming to Grandma's place. Everything is unlimited. The options are endless for a resident here."

Battling the Stereotypes

Thorson sees her job as a way to break down myths about senior living. "There are so many clichés and stereotypes of what assisted living is in memory care. People think of it as the old-fashioned nursing home, and it's not that at all. Just because they can't be living at the home that they have been in for so many years doesn't mean that their whole life has to stop. [We ask] how can we make the rest of these residents' lives and our family members' lives the best life possible?"

Making a Home, Not an Institution

The Harbors Dining RoomsThorson works hard to make The Harbors an inviting environment. "We aren't institutional at all. We are very home-like. You walk in, and you have piano music because we have CDs playing. Everybody has an individual apartment that is painted with earth tones, and they can bring their own furniture in so they're able to set up their apartment with all their own home furnishings." The good feeling extends into the shared spaces of The Harbors. "We have one big dining room that everybody comes down to the tables and sits and dines. It truly just feels like a big home where everybody is able to feel familiar and comfortable. It's not that institutional [feel] where you have the hard surface floors with the bed carts in the halls and call lights going off and everything. It's very tranquil and peaceful here."

Advice for Those Searching for Senior Living

Thorson advises that those considering senior living options do their homework ahead of time. "My advice is absolutely do your research. Don't be rushed into it and do your research early because otherwise, you will be rushed into it. There's going to be an emergency that happens, and they don't have the chance or the luxury to look around."

She added some specific pointers for talking to management at senior living sites. "Really study the management. Ask them every question. See how transparent they are with you and how open they are with giving you information. Ask to come for a guest meal and try their food. Ask if your loved one can come in for an activity. I'm a big one for 'try it before you buy'. What you see on your tour, what you see before you move in, is what you're going to get afterwards. [Sometimes] it's just a sales pitch to try to get you in, and there are some communities that are like that. I strive never to be like that. So definitely do your research and take your time with that part in the process."

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The COVID Impact

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on senior living is well-known. The Harbors experienced a small outbreak in May 2020 but handled the situation before it expanded. "We isolated residents who did have it back in May to one wing of the building and assigned only a certain amount of caregivers, and those caregivers were set to be with COVID residents only, so we were able to keep it contained in one area and being able to really overcome it. We take the policies and procedures that the state is giving us very seriously as far as the daily screen for our residents and the daily training for our employees. "

The Harbors was able to get their population of residents and employees inoculated as soon as the vaccine was available in January 2021. "We were able to get in on one of the first drops here in Minnesota.", said Thorson.

The pandemic has been tough on senior living. According to the National Investment Center, there was a drop in senior living admissions in 2020. Nevertheless, Thorson believes the fear is misplaced. "I am always one that says your loved one is the safest here. We have resources that can get help if we need to have the help. Thorson's advice to families of older adults is plain: "Don't be scared of moving your loved one into a community because, if anything, we are on top of more than what you know."

One upside Thorson sees coming out of the pandemic is a greater emphasis on emergency preparedness. "It has put so much emergency preparedness into all the communities. It's kept us on our toes and kept us up to date on what we need to stay prepared if another outbreak comes. It's kind of a blessing in disguise having gone through it because we're more knowledgeable of it."

Welcoming Change

Weathering the COVID storm has not deflected Thorson's enthusiasm for her life's work. "It goes back to like my passion and my mission in life. I want our community to continue to grow and stand apart from all the other communities. I don't ever want it to have that 'corporate' feel to where it has to be this way. It's always been this way."

Thorson believes ideas for improvement should be encouraged from all quarters. "I'm huge on change. I welcome change. I love ideas. If somebody has a different approach at something or thinks that we should do something different, I'm all for trying it. I welcome families to offer advice. We're all in this together, and the whole reason why we're here is because of your loved one."