The approach to senior care has changed dramatically in recent years. So says Michael Escamilla, executive director at Kirby Pines, a retirement community that offers a continuum of care in a resort-like setting where hospitality and customer service are an important factor for its leadership when making management decisions.
In studying his guests' preferences and striving to improve their daily living experiences, Escamilla says he continues to learn from older generations - something, he admits, that has occurred most of his life.
A native of San Antonio and a fifth-generation Texan, a young Escamilla loved to accompany his mother and sister to St. Vincent de Paul nursing home, where he visited people he thought of as his grandparents. Later, as a student at Marquette University, he was motivated by a lecture by Elizabeth Kubler Ross to change his major to sociology and pursue graduate work in human services and gerontology at the University of Houston.
Initially he worked as a grief counselor in a pilot program created by the Older Americans Act of 1965 -- the first federal initiative aimed at providing comprehensive services for older adults. He remained involved with its evolving programs at city, county and state levels until, 10 years later, he was serving as regional director of a 27-county area, providing services to more than 3,000 seniors.
The private sector offered opportunities to provide more personal one-on-one service, notably with Classic Residence by Hyatt -- now known as Vi Senior Living -- where he served as executive director of the corporation's high-end retirement communities in Dallas, Connecticut and Palm Beach County, Florida, before joining Retirement Companies of America (RCA), which operates Kirby Pines, in 2003.
Escamilla's oversight of Kirby Pines' independent living areas, home to more than 450 residents, enables him to partner with Annette Marlar, director of medical services, who supervises the 180 units that comprise the nursing home, assisted living and memory care areas -- where Escamilla is also responsible for maintenance, food and environmental services.
Not only are more people aging and creating a rapidly growing market of candidates for retirement living, but the generational differences of the newly aging require new approaches to the services that retirement communities have traditionally offered.
"Baby boomers are a little more demanding," he said with a smile. He described recent additions of daily active (chef) stations during meals in the dining room and assisted living, and expanded décor choices for residences -- formerly five flooring choices and seven wall color options have become today's spectrum of Sherwin Williams' rainbow and any flooring of your choice, although extra costs may be involved.
Renovations are combining smaller apartments to offer more spacious units of up to 1,600 square feet, while Kirby's recently purchased 10 acres will allow them to create a mega-boulevard that will give them an address on Kirby Parkway, and "drive-up appeal second to none," he said.
Escamilla has pioneered new directions and venues that add a lighter, less institutional touch to dining, with a charming bistro and expanded menu available to nursing and assisted living residents and their guests. The Oasis, an indoor health studio with pool, allows independent living residents to experience physical therapy without going to the nursing home's rehab area.
Within three years of Escamilla's arrival, Kirby achieved its highest occupancy level, with 100 percent of the independent units spoken for.
Residents' ages range from the 60s to 105, with half a dozen over 100, which is not unusual in healthier living environments, he said. "Continuum of care retirement communities tend to add life to a person -- the sociability, the mental stimulation and the healthcare benefits all extend your life."
Awareness of continuing care retirement communities (CCRC) is growing, Escamilla believes, "because they offer huge advantages including tax benefits. The IRS views your down payment as a prepaid medical expense. So a specified percentage of a lifecare resident's entrance fee becomes a tax deduction."
There are other economic advantages to lifecare, he added. "Nobody grows up thinking that one day their spouse won't be with them, and they'll have to drive 10 miles to see them. In CRCC, with all services on one campus, they're able to remain that loving couple, walking within the building or on the campus to see each other daily."
Escamilla learned from his role model parents the value of being involved in local organizations. "My father was twice named volunteer of the year in San Antonio," he said. "My mother was named woman of the year in San Antonio on two occasions, and nominated for Texas woman of the year."
His lengthy list of community service commitments and memberships reflects his personal interest in history and the arts, and includes his current service as chairman of Creative Aging of the Mid-South, an organization that provides art, music and dance programs that stimulate senior memories of bygone times.
Kirby is also the only community in the tri-state area to offer Brightlife virtual tours to residents, an amazing one-on-one interactive experience developed for his grandmother by innovator Josh Silldorff.
It's also the only community to win consistent recognition through The Commercial Appeal polls as "Memphis' best" in their field annually since 2006 -- an achievement Escamilla is proud of and hopes to match with future recognition as the employer of choice for this industry in the Memphis market. "Right now we're one of the top three," he said.
"This is a growing field, with a phenomenal number of people turning 65 every day -- so the field of not only continuing care but retirement living is wide open. The best advice I can give is to just make time to listen to your customer."
Escamilla continues to listen, learn and implement new services and amenities; his ideas are helping to shape the Farms at Bailey Station, the new RCA lifecare community in Collierville.
And he learns, still, from his 92-year-old aunt in California, veteran of several retirement communities, who continues to share her insider insights and advice about what's important -- a personal and very precious elder connection!