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CEO Conversation: Jon Riewer, Eventide Senior Living Communities

Photos by Nolan Schmidt

It’s no secret that senior living communities have been greatly affected by the pandemic. The staff at these communities around the country have been working tirelessly to ensure that things are as safe as they can be for the vulnerable population that they are caring for. Eventide is no different.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Eventide staff has had to adjust on the fly, hold themselves to the highest regulatory standards and work to continue to provide a good experience for its residents. Leading the way in this effort is Jon Riewer, President and CEO. Riewer has been President and CEO of Eventide, where he leads a staff of 1,400 that serves nearly 1,300 seniors daily, since 2003. He has also served as chair of the LeadingAge MN Board of Directors and the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce. With all that business experience, and a unique experience on his hands, Riewer made a great candidate for our latest CEO Conversation.

Q&A

Eventide has had to go through a lot recently, as a leader, how do you handle tough times?When the pandemic first surfaced in the area we were hopeful this was going to be something we could measure in days or weeks. Unfortunately, we have been dealing with this for most of the year and will likely continue to deal with it well into next year. We have faced other crisis events in the past such as the FM floods and helping to relocate a number of residents overnight following the fire at Elim last year and our team has always risen to the challenge. However, every day for the past nine months has been mentally, physically, and emotionally demanding. We continue to take things one day at a time and try to find new ways to support our staff, families, and residents through these difficult times while keeping in mind that this too shall pass and we will be a stronger organization as a result. We are so fortunate to have 1,400 committed staff members who are called to this work and a very supportive board who are connected to our purpose and work tirelessly to make sure our older adults receive excellent care in a safe environment that allows our residents to thrive. 

What’s your why?
I grew up in this field.  My mother was the Director of Nursing where I grew up and there was no “latch key” program for kids back then so it meant spending numerous after school afternoons visiting with residents at the local care center while waiting for a ride home. My first job in high school was also spent at the care center doing floor care, janitorial and other maintenance work.  Both experiences were great opportunities for me with the opportunity to interact with residents and other staff members. It was a true “melting pot” and hub of the community and I would say that is still the case with our senior care and assisted living communities today.  

I love that every day is different and the job requires a lot of interaction with residents, families and staff.  My best days at work are still the days I am at our campuses visiting with residents and sometimes just helping with the food and drinks at special events. I used to bring my kids on occasion to these resident events when they were younger.  As a result, my youngest had a kindergarten class assignment asking what his dad did for an occupation. He responded, “Not much, he just pours coffee and hands out cake to people.” As I thought more about it, he wasn’t entirely wrong and that is a pretty good gig!

How do you empower your employees?
Nearly everything we do in our work is people and relationship-based. We empower our team to use the relationships they create with our staff, residents and families to solve problems and to continue to deliver a great experience and create a place our residents can call home. We are also not afraid to hire young leaders and surround them with training and support.  We take pride in our internal career advancement opportunities at Eventide through scholarships and programs such as the Eventide Leadership Academy. In short, we have “doubled down” on investing in and growing our own leaders which is important now and imperative for our organization’s future.

What are some tips you have for other leadership in the FM area working to handle business with COVID going on?
We have been using the line: “Never waste a good crisis” a lot lately.  With that in mind, my only advice is to use this as an opportunity to reinvent yourself and/or your business around the challenges of COVID. There were a number of repositioning strategies for our organization that we have been talking about for years but were difficult to implement because things just kept chugging along. Enter a pandemic and we now have a catalyst event to provide the clarity and need to move forward on important changes to our organization ranging from downsizing to create all private rooms in our care centers to creative approaches to the group dining, recreation and technology in our senior living programs.

You manage a really large team, how do you stay in touch with everything that’s going on around the company?
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to stay in touch with “everything.”  I really depend on all of our leaders, both formal and informal, throughout Eventide to be the “CEO” of their area of responsibility and call out the issues and opportunities that need extra attention, provide opportunities for improvement or growth, or could have an impact for the entire organization.  

We also use a series of operations metrics to help us measure our goals around culture, quality, finances, safety, and customer satisfaction. We review these metrics monthly as a team and identify any barriers and create solutions to continued improvement.  The other goal is to keep our team focused and accountable to the outcomes by campus, and the organization as a whole, we are looking for in each of these key areas.   

Do you have any book or podcast recommendations?
“The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek.  A really good leadership read about how a finite mindset or a fixation on merely “winning” or “losing” is not healthy in business or life. The lessons of the book seem even more relevant with a backdrop of a pandemic. 

Bonus Q&A With Frontline Worker Jean Nystrom, CNA at Eventide Sheyenne Crossings

Jean Nystrom

How has your day to day work been affected by the pandemic?
Before the pandemic, everything operated pretty normally. Now it has been about seven months since this started and we have been wearing masks, and face shields, for eight hours a day. The days are more stressful, and it was sad when the residents couldn’t see their families, or get hugs from them. I am grateful now that we can allow visitors again and our residents can see their loved ones.

Why is your work important to you?
I love my work. I’ve been working here at Eventide Sheyenne Crossings for 11 years now. I work 40 hours a week so I get to see the residents every day. I get to know the residents very well and I enjoy giving them a smile or an occasional hug if they need it. They really appreciate even the small things, like asking them if they would like some water, or doing something nice for them. I have a good relationship with them, and I put compassion into my work with them.

How has management helped support you and your coworkers during COVID?
The management has been doing their best to support us in all areas. They work hard to make sure that there are enough workers to cover the shifts, which can be very difficult at times because of the situation. They also provide us with the necessary protective equipment so that we feel safe and can protect the residents from COVID.  They also make sure that the lines of communication are always open so that we can respond to any situation in the best way possible.

What do you think you and your team will learn from all of this going forward?
Hopefully, the threat of COVID will someday be gone, and we can appreciate our freedoms to be with our families and enjoy a sense of being normal again.  We can learn to not take these things for granted at work, or at home.

Bonus Q&A With Frontline Worker Maggie Richardson, Director of Infection Prevention at Eventide Fargo

Maggie Richardson

What are some of the difficulties you’ve had to deal with as a result of the pandemic?
One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been handling the unknowns and learning to adapt quickly to change. I started in my role as the Director of Quality and Infection Preventionist at the end of October 2019. I had about four months of “getting my feet wet” before the largest pandemic in one hundred years hit and started to shift from being a faraway disease on another continent to something that was knocking on the front door of North Dakota. We had to pivot our focus as a facility to COVID-19 and learn to implement new processes and procedures, sometimes multiple times per day as new guidance was provided to us. We formulated communication and education plans to keep our employees, residents and their loved ones all in the know. It has been a lot of hard work, and oftentimes sleepless nights, but eight months later, we are operating in a much safer environment for our residents and employees and are committed to keep it that way.

Another challenge has been coping with the hardships of how this pandemic has impacted our residents and their loved ones, especially with very limited visitation early on. Communicating visitation guidance from the ND Department of Health is emotional, especially if our resident is nearing end of life and only designated family members are able to physically be present to say their goodbyes. Our staff has really stepped up to the plate to come up with creative solutions to keep residents feeling like they have a family in our Eventide community, and by keeping them in communication with their loved ones through Zoom chats, window visits, phone calls and culminated in scheduled indoor/outdoor visitation once the phased approach was developed in the ND Smart Restart Plan.

In these difficult times, how has your job stayed rewarding and fulfilling?
My job has remained rewarding and fulfilling throughout these difficult times whenever I see how well our team and residents have adapted to our new normal. Each week when I get our COVID testing attendance sheet and see how our staff are still willing to get tested weekly, even after all of these months, I am grateful. When I walk into a resident’s room for COVID testing, and they thank us for continuing to test because they “would rather know,” I am thankful for their understanding. It was very rewarding to celebrate our resident’s recoveries from COVID early in the pandemic, especially with so many unknowns. I enjoy speaking to family members and providing them the good news as we move through the re-opening phase or when we get to call and update them on negative results, you can feel how relieved they are. There have been many rewarding moments and reasons to celebrate throughout even some of the most difficult days, and that’s what keeps me going.

How has the team you’ve worked with responded to the challenges?
Our entire Team at Eventide has responded to the pandemic swiftly and with grace, from the top down. We started meeting as an Eventide-wide COVID task force in early March and continue to meet multiple times a week to keep consistent as an organization. Within Eventide Fargo, we work as a team to make decisions. We put a great deal of effort and pride into looking at the big picture, and how to adopt the guidance we are given by the Department of Health into our facility. Our Eventide team has sacrificed vacations, weddings, funerals and more to keep their coworkers and our residents safe. We had many employees fearlessly step up as willing to work on our COVID unit back in April. They risked their own health and well-being to care for others, and they are heroes. I am proud to be a member of this team, and appreciate all of our staff and how they have handled these challenging times. Everyone has had to take on more and everyone has done their part.

What do you think?

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