While virtually every industry has been impacted by the pandemic, senior housing and senior services have been at the forefront in grappling with both the physical health risks of COVID-19 and the emotional impact of isolation caused by social distancing from family, friends and other residents.
For Ecumen, a nonprofit, values-based organization that operates more than 40 senior housing communities across seven states – and a Bremer customer since 2012 – 2020 has been a year of maximum learning and timely innovation.
While no one wants to experience a crisis like COVID-19, President and CEO Shelley Kendrick and her team are mindful of the progress that is often borne out of difficulty. “We have opportunities we didn’t have before,” she says. “The pandemic has expedited our resident-focused digital offerings and allowed us to change more rapidly. We’re more agile now.”
In keeping with Ecumen’s commitment to a high level of customer service and their mission to create homes for older adults wherever they choose to live – cooperative, independent living, assisted living, memory care, care center, respite care, short-stay rehab or subsidized housing, Ecumen’s innovations have been focused on keeping seniors more socially connected – while also keeping them safe. From testing an AI robot named ElliQ to constructing outdoor plexiglass connection stations that allow the resident to see their family members “unmasked” from within the protective glass enclosure, Ecumen is committed to addressing the mental health challenges of social distancing and isolation.
“ElliQ is voice-activated, but she also recognizes facial expressions and body language. She is programmed to engage and prompt residents to drink water, do their exercises and other daily tasks,” Kendrick explains. Ecumen had begun exploring AI robots in the spring of 2019, but the pandemic accelerated their testing. They now have robots at three sites. ElliQ has become a social companion for residents to talk to and laugh with (she is even able to remember residents’ favorite jokes!). Kendrick says depression scores have improved as a result of the meaningful moments created by ElliQ.
In her role as CEO for just 18 months – nearly half of which have been focused on managing COVID-19 – Kendrick also highlighted some of her leadership learnings. Before being named president and CEO, Kendrick spent seven years leading Ecumen’s housing and care center communities, a role that required frequent visits to facilities across the organization. “While I love visiting communities and can’t wait to actively schedule these visits again,” she shares, “I have learned that it is possible to be a virtual CEO. In fact, I’m able to connect with even more of our staff and residents because there’s no travel time.”
Ecumen has also transitioned to employing virtual tours for potential residents, remote work and online training for team members and virtual hiring events that have opened doors to recruit talent from all across the country.
The pandemic has underscored the importance of senior care communities sharing best practices and working together, especially in smaller rural communities. “We aren’t competing with each other. We have to work together to help the communities we are in,” Kendrick explains.
As CEO, Kendrick says, an important part of her job is setting expectations and providing stability during a crisis. “People need to know what to expect, that it’s okay to be afraid, and that things will get better.” She has established and maintained a consistent meeting cadence to stay connected to her teams and provide much-needed constancy to both manage the pandemic and drive organizational growth.
According to Kendrick, none of this progress would be possible without Bremer, who manages Ecumen’s deposit accounts, loans, treasury management, insurance and employee retirement plans. She particularly values Bremer’s expertise and counsel. “If you’re a nonprofit seeking a new banking partner, look for one that understands your business or is willing to learn. Bremer has consistently demonstrated their understanding, and we value them as our trusted full-service financial partner,” Kendrick says.
And Bremer relationship banker David Borden says that partnering with Ecumen to provide financing for their capital needs to help their business expand is rewarding. “Ecumen is an honorable organization in the senior living space,” Borden said. “Their experience and expertise make them incredibly strong operators.”