Janet Burns, CEO of Sunny Vista Living Center, grew up in Illinois and studied architecture before moving to Alaska, then Hawaii, working along the way as a stockbroker, emergency medical technician, dental assistant and scuba instructor. Later, she earned a bachelor’s of business administration from California State University in Sacramento.
When she was in high school, time spent with her grandmother, who eventually died of Alzheimer’s disease, led Burns to “love interactions with older adults.” The best part of her job now is making “life better for people who are older and sometimes suffering.”
In 1991, she and her husband Mark Duda moved to Colorado Springs, and Burns went to a job interview at Laurel Manor Care Center, mainly to practice her skills during an interview. After waiting in the lobby, talking to senior residents, she was reminded of “how much I really loved older people … it was just a joy.”
So she accepted a position as business manager and has worked her way upward in the industry for 23 years. At Sunny Vista, her title was administrator for 10 years. After additions were made to Sunny Vista’s services, she became CEO three years ago.
Burns, who enjoys riding motorcycles, snowboarding, cooking and playing with Maggie, an English pointer, took time recently to tell us about Sunny Vista Living Center, a long-term care facility that also offers on-site rehabilitation, and was established more than 100 years ago.
Give us a history of Sunny Vista and its deep roots in the community.
Sunny Vista began as a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1911 and was originally known as Sunnyrest Sanatorium. Marjorie Palmer Watt, the daughter of Colorado Springs founder General William Palmer, created an endowment that is still in place today. After World War II, when tuberculosis was no longer a great threat, Sunnyrest became a nursing home for community residents who couldn’t afford health care. By 1984 the board of directors recognized a need for housing for low-income seniors who could live independently and hence, created The Villa at Sunnyrest. The Villa is a 50-unit, HUD-subsidized apartment complex for seniors and disabled adults. In early 2004, the board again responded to the needs of the community and began plans for a state-of-the-art facility across the street from the original location.
Along the way the name was changed to Sunny Vista Living Center and now it provides skilled care and rehabilitation services to older adults in the Springs.
How has the senior care industry evolved during your tenure as CEO of Sunny Vista?
Over the past few years the acuity at all levels of senior care has increased. Those who used to be in skilled nursing facilities are now receiving services in assisted living, and skilled nursing facilities are caring for patients who have more complex medical needs than ever before. We are also seeing an increase in the availability of rehabilitation services for the aging Baby Boomers. With advances in medicine such as artificial hip and knee joints, this younger population is receiving rehabilitation services earlier in their lives to maintain their active lifestyle.
What are the biggest shortcomings in the senior care industry, and what can be done about them?
Obviously the Baby Boomers, a huge aging demographic, are staying healthier longer than previous generations. This is sure to put a tremendous amount of stress on the current health care system, and at this point I don’t believe we’re equipped to meet their needs. There is already a gap with funding for Assisted Living Facilities (ALFs) as there are very few Medicaid-funded ALFs. The result is that a person living independently and in need of support services may not be able to afford to live in an Assisted Living Facility. They continue to live at home but eventually they grow more frail and may have an incident that lands them in the hospital and/or a skilled nursing facility. At that point the cost of their care is much higher and might have been avoided with supervision and assistance sooner.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a nonprofit in this industry, competing against for-profits?
The advantage is that we are continually able to direct funds back into care for older adults. For example, we were able to build our new facility, which we moved into in 2012. We are able to provide private rooms for all residents, which is not covered by Medicaid. Currently we are in the planning stages of a new Assisted Living facility on the site of the old Sunnyrest building, which will provide an intermediate level of care in our continuum. Another advantage is that we have a mission, not just a job. We know we can make life better for those in our care, and that passion is what drives us.
The disadvantage would be the reliance on the generosity of others for additional funding. Of course, this is affected by economic conditions so when there is a downturn, supplemental funding for capital campaigns slows at just the time we need it most.
How does your geographical location (on Cache La Poudre, between Union Avenue and Circle Drive) in a non-suburban, lower-income neighborhood affect your services?
We believe we are ideally located to serve seniors in our community. Sunny Vista is only one mile from Memorial Hospital and those living in The Villa at Sunny Vista, as it’s now known, have easy access to pharmacy services, groceries and bus service.
Describe the differences between assisted living and Sunny Vista’s model of a long-term care facility with rehabilitation.
Assisted living is for older adults who can live alone but need help with some aspects of their life. For example, they may need help taking their medications or cooking and cleaning their apartment. Staff is available for assistance, but this level does not require a nurse’s presence at all times.
A skilled and rehabilitation center, such as our current model, requires that a registered nurse be onsite 24 hours per day. Physicians visit frequently and aides are always available to help with activities of daily living such as bathing, transferring from chair to bed, etc. This is the place for residents who need more medical care after a surgery or serious injury.