NIC Chats Podcast with Patricia Will

When looking for senior housing options for a loved one, Patricia Will, founder & CEO of Belmont Village Senior Living, told herself, “If I can’t find one, I’ll make one.” From developing her first community—designed to provide a level of care and service that she’d expect for her own family—to now operating and developing communities in 15 states, Will has continuously put the needs and desires of residents first. Will joined Beth Mace, NIC’s chief economist and director of outreach, to discuss the evolution of her career in senior housing and care, the innovative programs Belmont offers to keep residents healthy and engaged, and the resilience of their staff throughout the pandemic.  

Beth Mace: (00:04)
Hello and welcome to the NIC Chats podcast. My name is Beth Mace and I’m the chief economist and the director of research and analytics here at NIC. Thank you for joining us today. The focus of the NIC Chats podcast is talking to interesting people that have ideas that I think you’d like to hear about. As you listen today, I hope that you’ll find some humor, insights, inspiration, and hopefully what I call an aha moment when something pithy or insightful is said, and maybe a light bulb will go off for you. So let me tell you a bit about the structure of today’s event. First, I’ll tell you three statements about my guest and two are true. Throughout the podcast, you’ll learn, which is true, and which is false. Second, there are three standard questions within each podcast for each speaker. The first is “what is the largest challenge facing our industry?” Second, one thing to grow talent in the industry, and third, one innovative way or idea to strengthen our industry. Now, as I say, I’m with the show. So I’m delighted that our NIC Chats podcast guest today is Patricia Will founder and CEO of Belmont Village. Patricia, thank you so much for joining us today.

Patricia Will: (01:11)
It’s my pleasure, Beth.

Beth Mace: (01:13)
So good to see you again as well. So as I mentioned, I have three statements about Patricia. Two are true and one is false. So these statements include to keep her ideas fresh, she’s an avid reader of business books, or I prepared for an entrepreneurial career by majoring in French, in history or street. Or I have been working with a trainer at 6:00 AM every day for over 20 years. So now you’ll have to stay tuned for the entire podcast to see which of these is true and which of these is false. So let’s start with Patricia talking about you and Belmont Village. So you established Belmont Village in 1997 and have since been its CEO. In fact, I think you and I have known each other since early this time, or at least in the late 1990s, when I was still at AEW Capital Management, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry, as well as in the company over these years. Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of Belmont Village and where it stands today?

Patricia Will: (02:11)
Beth, it’s hard to believe first of all, that it’s 25 years, at least since we met. And since I started Belmont Village. You look the same by the way.

Beth Mace: (02:20)
As do you. Always beautiful.

Patricia Will: (02:23)
The industry, when I entered in 1997, was really still in its infancy. We were creating a category. We had reluctant participants. The seniors who presented were pretty much dragged into our communities by their adult children because there was a need and the category was very ill understood. When I look at the evolution of our company, but even more so of the industry, particularly now 25 years later, we are seeing a sea change. In that we have now established this category. It’s the seniors who are very often presenting and here’s the big surprise seniors today are roughly five years younger when they present, even in our assisted living communities than they were back then. So there’s an adoption of our product that I could have never imagined as we were kind of fighting uphill back in the late nineties. With respect to our company, I began with one community on a corner, about a mile from the Texas Medical Center. When I was in search of a community for a loved one and ultimately decided, well, if I can’t find one, I’ll make one. The idea then was I would start an operating company because of course I was a real estate developer and thought that I could make something. But then beyond that today, I would be sitting here in California as we are getting ready to launch our 15th community in California. And our 33rd in the country. If you shot me back then I would not have guessed that’s where we’d be today.

Beth Mace: (04:27)
Wow. That’s fantastic. That’s exciting. So you’re continuing to do new development some in California and some other other spots in the country. So tell us about some of the more recent things you’ve been doing in California. I think you’ve been working with a lot of universities there is that right?

Patricia Will: (04:43)
Yes. Well, we’ve developed two communities directly in affiliation with various UC universities. The first was in Westwood in LA and we developed that building in affiliation with UCLA and very, very rich. It’s not on their land, but very, very rich programming involvement of both professors and amerti, and then subsequent to that in 2017, we opened a community on Berkeley land at UC Berkeley and it’s what I call the building where everybody who lives there has an IQ of 150.

Beth Mace: (05:34)
A little intimidating.

Patricia Will: (05:37)
Yeah. It’s well, it could be, but what a gas to live and participate in a building where the original head of women’s studies at Berkeley lives. Wow. And the former Dean of the law school. Very, very rich intellectual ferment and also intergenerational ferment. And then now as we get ready to launch a beautiful community in la Jolla, California. We have an affiliation with University of California, San Diego’s Center for Research on Aging. And we are working on program with them. They’re actually going to have a living lab in the building as a resource to our seniors, with various faculty members that will participate. So these programs are what keeps me going. Not only because they’re so important to fostering intellectual spiritual wellbeing but also because for me, it’s like drinking out of a fire hose. I learned something every day.

Beth Mace: (06:47)
Well, and it’s moving the industry forward. So you’re working specifically on resilience. Is that right? Is that part of the study?

Patricia Will: (06:52)
Resilience and wisdom. So, the second program that we’re launching with UCSD is on resilience and wisdom training.

Beth Mace: (07:03)
Wow. Wisdom training. So tell us a little bit about that.

Patricia Will: (07:07)
Well, you know, wisdom is a personality trait, but it can be cultivated through a series of exercises and in the process your mental wellbeing, your resilience, how upbeat you are is fostered. We originally did a study on this and a program on this with UCSD in two of our California communities here in San Diego. Ran it and the results were so startling that they published them. This is a sequel to that. And we’re pushing the envelope even further.

Beth Mace: (07:45)
And what was one of the startling results?

Patricia Will: (07:47)
One of the startling results is that even after the program was over, they came back about six weeks, two months later, and measured wellbeing and resilience in the seniors who participated and it continued to increase and the seniors continued to participate themselves or together without a trainer in the exercises.

Beth Mace: (08:16)
Oh, that’s good. And well, didn’t, didn’t it affect people’s immunity or with their blood tests?

Patricia Will: (08:21)
Well we know that sense of wellbeing and sense of resilience, self empathy, compassion is an element in fostering better health and better immunity. So in this study the researchers are going to ask for volunteers to give blood samples. They did a prequel to this last summer and those people who participated actually had better immunity.

Beth Mace: (09:00)
Wow, wow. That would be a pretty good sales pitch to get people into our property. I would think.

Patricia Will: (09:05)
Yeah. I don’t know that we can make that claim yet, but we’re working on it.

Beth Mace: (09:08)
That’s amazing actually. So as you say, and as I said earlier, we’ve known each other for a long time and I’ve always been so excited and impressed by your relationships with folks in the universities and in the field of gerontology and early on, you were developing early stage dementia interventions for residents and I recall touring some of your properties and seeing some of those. Can you tell us about sort of those relationships again, as it relates to the dementia portion of some of the work that you’ve been doing?

Patricia Will: (09:34)
Yeah. So my initial foray into this business was stimulated by my mother-in-law, who had early stage dementia. And I very quickly learned that while there was very little in practice that was studied measured, and that could improve the situation, there are at major medical centers throughout the country and really the world researchers who were looking not at the magic pill to ward off dementia. Which frankly we don’t have yet or even to alleviate dementia, but rather how through behavioral and educational changes, you can platue. We were fascinated by this and back in the mid two thousands as the world was falling apart, we decided to make a very large investment in bringing very well founded research into our communities. We launched a very deliberate curriculum for maintaining your brain for those who have MCI. We piloted in three cities a researcher at Vanderbilt university followed our residents and we altered the program in a lot of ways still do. And today we run the program in every building in the country. What it does is allow people to continue to live if they’re not a flight risk within assisted living or even independent living but participate seven days a week in a curriculum that hits on the domains that allow for fostering connectivity in the brain.

Beth Mace: (11:46)
I remember in turn one of your properties that there was a loose leaf binder about, I don’t know, eight inches wide that had curriculum for every day. And it related to matters of mobility and thought processes and language whole array of different sort of skill sets that you were developing,

Patricia Will: (12:05)
Which is critically important. So you have to hit on all domains. You have to have very well trained people who can run it and then you have to have measurement. you have to know whether you’re doing any good or not, and if not, why not? So yes, the binder, the curriculum is constantly refreshed but you can’t run the program by taking a picture on your cell phone of the calendar for the day

Beth Mace: (12:32)
No, no, you had to be active. I remember that as well. So you also have a partnership with, I believe, health system, Baptist Health. Why has that been important to Belmont Village? And what’s happened since I think it began in 2019.

Patricia Will: (12:44)
Yeah. It actually began a few years before that, and then was formalized as we were in 2019. Again, a great medical institution, Baptist Healthcare is the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in south Florida in the Fort county area of Southeast Florida. Absolutely excellent system. And to their credit, they recognize the importance of seniors as a customer, but also on fostering wellbeing in seniors, in upping their game. They decided to purchase a site in Coral Gables, which is where they’re headquartered and look for a seniors housing developer and operator who shared their vision of making seniors housing with an underbelly of care. They are healthcare system, but that would really focus on wellbeing in seniors and pushing the envelope. We were fortunate to win the RFP. We spent a lot of time visioning what we could do, and we broke ground on that building last year, last fall. And are continuing to partner on additional communities in Southeast Florida. What’s really fun is that we’re going to have on the ground of the building, we have retail and restaurant. And we’re going to have a new concept for Baptist, which is Living Healthy by Baptist that will have some clinical elements to it, but will also focus with a retail presence on fostering wellbeing.

Beth Mace: (14:42)
Interesting. And that will bring in people from outside the community.

Patricia Will: (14:44)
That’ll bring in people truly.

Beth Mace: (14:46)
Yeah. Wow. That’s fantastic. Well, your always on the cutting edge. I have to say. So let’s switch a little bit in the pandemic, right. So that took us all by horror and storm. So what are some of the lessons that you’ve incorporated into operations that you think will stay into place

Patricia Will: (15:04)
From a technology perspective, probably the biggest one is the advent of really superior telehealth in our buildings. When the pandemic occurred, everybody I’m sure recalls that the ERs around the country were all full and our seniors didn’t want to go to them anyway. And so we searched the country looking for a telehealth platform where the people on the other end of the computer were board certified emergency geriatricians. We found that platform and put their kiosks into our communities to triage emergencies that were not of the most urgent nature. And what we discovered is that this is something that stays, in other words, it was great during the pandemic, but the idea that you can avoid a visit in the middle of the night to the dreaded ER and sit and wait, because you’ve got a board certified geriatrician on the other end of the kiosk is something that I think has legs. And will continue. So there’s an example of a silver lining.

Beth Mace: (16:39)
That’s good.

Patricia Will: (16:41)
I think that beyond that is the biggest lesson learned is how resilient our people are. The seniors who had been through so much before were wonderful. Our people were extraordinary. And the resilience of our people is something that amazed me and still does.

Beth Mace: (17:10)
Yeah. I remember hearing stories that the seniors themselves were giving support to some of the staff because they’ve been through so many crises in their life. They’re like, okay, this is how you cope, like those kinds of lessons.

Patricia Will: (17:21)
That’s absolutely true.

Beth Mace: (17:22)
With wisdom keepers, so to speak. Okay. So now we’re going to go to one of those truth or falsehoods. So is it true that you’ve been working out? Is it with a trainer at 6:00 AM for over 20 years? I would say yes, actually by looking at you, but is that a true statement?

Patricia Will: (17:41)
It’s a true statement.

Beth Mace: (17:42)
Wow. That’s that’s dedication. And even when you’re traveling and your way do you get up in the morning?

Patricia Will: (17:47)
I get up in the morning and do it about half the time.

Beth Mace: (17:51)
That’s great. Well, congratulations. That’s certainly going to create your resilience going forward. So Patricia, tell us about your career path and why did you, I think you told us before your mother-in-law had dementia, that sort of moved you into seniors housing, but you had been involved in development real estate for a long time. So why did you end up staying in senior housing and put all your energies into that?

Patricia Will: (18:14)
Well, senior housing for me is definitely a 25 year second career.

Beth Mace: (18:19)

Patricia Will: (18:20)
So I after grad school I became a real estate developer and was a very young partner and a all male company.

Beth Mace: (18:32)
And grad school, just for the record, was where?

Patricia Will: (18:36)
Harvard MBA.

Beth Mace: (18:37)
So yeah, you were sort of cutting edge in Harvard MBA program as well. So not meaning to interrupt you, but keep going. Yeah.

Patricia Will: (18:45)
And I became a real estate developer and kind of working the food groups, primarily office buildings, and then launched within our company and subsequent to that with a business partner, a medical development company. During that time, I was also doing board service for a, not for profit hospital system. I was kind of their real estate wonk. And so I was hanging around the hoop of healthcare in a pretty substantial way. Along comes this need within our family and a bell went off and said, I can use my real estate development skills to make something better or different than what I see out there. What didn’t Dawn on me immediately is how difficult it would be to bring it to life. And I actually looked at management companies, most of which were managing nursing homes. few of the assisted living companies in the country were still very small, but already going public.

Beth Mace: (19:58)

Patricia Will: (19:58)
So they had no interest in messing with us. And so that set me on the path of starting an operating company to go with the development from scratch. That’s all encompassing. So you can’t be a real estate developer doing an assisted living building and a medical office complex. I had to get all in. Right, right. And I did that.. 95, 96 finished up some medical projects that I was doing and officially launched in 1997, so 25 years ago.

Beth Mace: (20:37)
Wow. Yep. So last year, I believe that ASHA welcomed you into this senior living hall of fame. So congratulations on that. It’s quite an achievement and honor. As background for our audience, ASHA created the senior living hall of fame in 2018 to recognize, and I quote “visionary individuals who have distinguished themselves through uncommon foresight. As well as groundbreaking innovation in an unwavering commitment to community lifestyles and enhanced choice, independence, dignity, and personalized service.” So what did this award mean for you and to you?

Patricia Will: (21:12)
It literally took my breath away and it was totally unexpected and in fact, when I got the call that this was happening and would I accept… I thought it was a mistake.

Beth Mace: (21:29)
Oh my gosh.

Patricia Will: (21:30)
And what was incredibly special about it was that I was introduced by my two sons. Who were both today in various facets of the industry. To say that that was touching.

Beth Mace: (21:53)
I remember tearing up actually.

Patricia Will: (21:55)
Yeah. And you know, I teased them all the time about it now because of course growing up they were like, do we have to go to another seniors housing and community? Are we walking another job site? And I look at the legacy in my own family of young people who are now growing and supporting this industry. And that’s very fulfilling.

Beth Mace: (22:22)
Yeah. I imagine, yep. I have a similar experience, so that’s fantastic. And I believe that you’re a former chair of ASHA and you’ve served on the board in public policy community of the California assisted living association CALA, in Argentum. And you’re currently on the board of the Texas Assisted Living Association and on the boards of the University of Southern California, Davis School of Gerontology and the University of California, LA Center for Longevity. So how do you possibly do all that and run a business and especially for younger people trying to figure out balance, you’re very active, you’re with your family, you’re very active in business, you’re very active in volunteering. How do you manage it?

Patricia Will: (23:02)
It’s always a juggle and I think that hard lesson learned that came a long time ago perhaps with a little bit of therapy is to not try to be perfect, the A achiever at everything because I think that we have a tendency to do that and where ourselves thin also to pick and choose what matters to you. That string of involvements that you just described is important to me. It matters. So I make the time for it. And I think a lot of people are tempted when asked to serve particularly on not for profit boards or volunteerism to say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And then they’re simply unable to go deep. I choose very carefully what I do in the hope that I’ll get as much as I give because I’m a lifelong learner. So the final thing I’d say is that I think we women and particularly those of us that are mothers who have had careers consistently learn that balancing act and how to manage it. And ironically, I think it gives us a leg up, you know, you can be at the soccer field in time for the game and read your material when you get home before you go to bed. That sort of thing.

Beth Mace: (24:53)
Yeah. I agree. I’ve had the same experience as a matter of balance and prioritizing and saying no to a lot of things. Like I remember I, I stopped sending out Christmas cards, for example. I was like, I just don’t have time to do that. And I don’t think I’ve lost too many friends from it, although I’m probably not as, as involved and know about the details of it as many people’s lives as I once did, but yeah.

Patricia Will: (25:17)
So you’re one step ahead of me and that you sent out Christmas cards and stopped. I’ve never done it. I know who’s never done it and it’s exactly for that reason. Yeah. That is to say, who has time to do that? I don’t.

Beth Mace: (25:31)
Yeah. I also have found cause I travel a fair amount for business and I’ve gotten to know a lot of your colleagues over the years because of that, that I have groups of friends that I wore my professional friends. And sometimes I see those more frequently than my sort of neighborhood friends or my college friends. And that’s been really interesting and fun as a learning experience as well, especially getting to know other women on sort of career paths as well. So that’s another advantage I think, to work as a volunteer in some of the organizations.

Patricia Will: (25:58)

Beth Mace: (26:00)
Yeah. Okay. So I’m going to ask you one of our standard podcast questions and, you know, talent and labor is a challenge for us. So do you have any secret sauce or any specialty or any idea you could tell our audience about how you can grow talent in our industry?

Patricia Will: (26:19)
Well we have been growing our own talent for a very long time. We launched probably 10, 15 years ago a training program to identify talent within our organization. Put the individuals who are chosen. They apply to participate in the program who were chosen through both on the job and curriculum training for a period of time and develop them as leaders or future leaders. Yesterday I was with a fellow who actually started out in San Diego, I think as an enrichment leader in one of our buildings, became the memory program person in that building. Eventually our regional memory program leader went through the executive director and training program. Ran our Westwood building for eight years and is opening our la Jolla building.

Beth Mace: (27:28)
Really. Wow. That’s fantastic.

Patricia Will: (27:30)
So, you know, that’s a great example. And through the years he’s also mentored multiple executive directors in training. So I think that it dawned on us that rather than stealing from peers we should make a concerted effort to grow our own. On the live position side, not just our company, but every company in this business is extremely challenged today. We all work very hard to be an employer of choice. Belmont Village as a company was just certified again, as a great place to work.

Beth Mace: (28:12)
I read that. Congratulations.

Patricia Will: (28:14)
But the supply demand situation is such that no matter how hard you work, no matter how serious your efforts are to recruit, retain, there simply aren’t enough pairs of hands out there that are available. And I think that for this industry to thrive, particularly for this next 20 years with boomers coming on, we’re going have to make some policy and structural changes in the country chiefly having to do with immigration.

Beth Mace: (28:53)
Yeah. Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. So outside of labor and staffing, is there any other challenge that you are particularly in tune with right now that’s facing the industry? I mean, inflation is a big topic right now, rising interest rates, just the economy, consumer confidence.

Patricia Will: (29:11)
Well, you know I can say this now with 25 years under my belt, you know, we have powered through all kinds of economies during the last, you know, since we’ve been in business really, since we opened our first building in ’98. We had the recession of 2001, right after 9/11. We had the great recession in 2008 and beyond. And honestly we never stopped developing and our operations held up very well. So you have to bend the challenges. Obviously here in California where I filled my car yesterday for $6.75, a gallon.

Beth Mace: (29:56)

Patricia Will: (29:58)
Yeah. You have to understand that employees need to earn more and that wage pressure is with us. We’re in a really strange period right now, to the extent that we’ve got real inflation and very low unemployment. But you bend you power through it. And with respect to interest rates… Yes, the projects that we’re putting in the ground this year and next year will pay more. But you have to have some perspective. You know, the sky doesn’t fall if you’re paying, you know, 6% instead of three, right. My first mortgage was I think 14% and change.

Beth Mace: (30:56)
Yeah. I remember paying 18% interest in a car.

Patricia Will: (30:59)
Yeah. So basically, you know, I tell this to the wonderful next generation and they look at me why I died. And, you know, we all survived.

Beth Mace: (31:11)
Yeah. Okay. Agreed. Totally agreed. And one of my last sort of standard questions is an innovative idea on how to strengthen our industry broadly.

Patricia Will: (31:23)
You know, I think that the power of our industry is in sharing. You know, there’s very little that any of us do that’s proprietary. And I think that within the bounds of not violating antitrust or anything like that the ties that bind through ASHA through Argentum not just to work on public policy or workforce development, but also to work side by side with one another. Through the years I think that the sharing that happens makes us all better. I think that this isn’t particularly innovative, but I think that the concerted effort now beyond the pandemic that we need to make as an industry has everything to do with labor workforce development. And as I said earlier, immigration policy, so that we have enough nurses so that we have enough med techs so that we have enough people to do the work.

Beth Mace: (32:30)
Yeah. Agree with you again. So let’s go back to the truth and the false statement. So is it true that you you studied French and history and that’s how you prepared for your entrepreneurial career?

Patricia Will: (32:46)
It’s true.

Beth Mace: (32:47)
It’s true. How did, how did French and history help you?

Patricia Will: (32:50)
Well I’m, I’m from the school that believes that if you can read, write and sing you can do anything. And so by taking a wide variety of coursework, learning proficiently a second foreign language, getting a perspective on, through my education, on historical precedents. I think that you know, I then went to finishing school at Harvard. But I think that the kind of Renaissance curricula that forces you to read, write and think was great training for me.

Beth Mace: (33:35)
Yeah. I agree. And *speaks french*

Patricia Will: (33:39)

Beth Mace: (33:41)
So how about this then to keep your ideas fresh, are you an avid reader of business books?

Patricia Will: (33:47)
Absolutely not.

Beth Mace: (33:48)
Absolutely not?

Patricia Will: (33:49)
Absolutely not. I am an avid reader of novels in English, French and Spanish.

Beth Mace: (33:55)
Oh my goodness. Okay. That’s great.

Patricia Will: (33:58)
And let me just say something about that, Beth. I think that this goes back to your earlier question about balance. That is to say, if you do all one thing all the time, you know, you’re now curled up on the couch at night and you read, you know, the next tome on business or leadership, you know, that’s all good, but you’ve got to detach. You’ve gotta be able to be in a different world and reading and reading for fun, just like grandchildren, does that for me.

Beth Mace: (34:32)
Right. Absolutely. Yeah. And you have grandchildren, is that right?

Patricia Will: (34:36)
Yeah. I have three.

Beth Mace: (34:37)
Three. Okay. That’s great. How old are they?

Patricia Will: (34:40)
Six, four and two.

Beth Mace: (34:42)
Oh, fun. How fun!

Patricia Will: (34:44)
They’re Aaron’s kids.

Beth Mace: (34:47)
So I could talk to you for quite a while, Patricia. I love talking with you, but I think we’re going to run out of time now. So I just want to say thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I think our audience would really enjoy listening to your career and listening to a lot of your insights and especially what you’re doing in the area of wellness and health for seniors, I think is really fascinating. So thank you.

Patricia Will: (35:07)
Thank you for the opportunity, Beth. It’s always fun to talk with you.

Beth Mace: (35:11)
All right. Take care. Have a very good day.

Patricia Will: (35:13)
Take care.

Beth Mace: (35:14)
Thanks everyone for listening. Bye.

Listen and Subscribe

Find us wherever you get your podcast. For a complete list of ways to listen visit this link.

Get Involved

NIC Chats is a monthly podcast offering ideas and inspiration from leaders in seniors living. Want to get involved? Explore exclusivesponsorship opportunities today.

November 2023 NIC Insider Newsletter Now Available Read Now »