Client Spotlight: Debra Petras of Priority Life Care

Nov 30, 2022

In our “Client Spotlight’ series, our goal is to highlight some of the passionate, dedicated healthcare professionals with whom we’re privileged to work on a daily basis. For the inaugural piece in our series, we spoke with Debra Petras, Director of Corporate Soul at Priority Life Care, a company that operates over 34 communities across the United States. Debra shares her thoughts on the current state of the senior living workforce and the (perhaps surprising) ways in which surviving a once-in-a-generation pandemic has changed the mindset of the entire industry.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career?

I’ve been in healthcare for over 20 years, in various roles. I have experience in hospice, home health, assisted living, memory care, you name it, and I’ve been in multiple roles in both the community or the ancillary side of healthcare. I’m now in third party management, where we’re responsible for all the operations of the senior living communities we contract with. I feel like my insight comes from the fact that I’ve had various roles, and I have a pretty good sense of  the current climate of our business. 

What is your assessment of the current climate for caregivers and others on the front line in senior living communities? 

From my experience, the pandemic helped to spur an important shift. The people who stuck it out through the pandemic were in the industry for the right reasons. Conversely, those who left during the pandemic weren’t a good fit to start. But in the pre-pandemic climate, no one made these distinctions. There’s a difference between someone’s heart being in what they do and someone else working to collect a paycheck. In our industry, it’s one thousand percent about the heart. You simply can’t take care of people without having a connection to them. Our industry has rushed to put people in jobs to fill the schedule while forgetting that we’re a people industry. 

When the pandemic came, the people who were just filling roles left in droves. Those who stayed, who said, “I’m here to care for people” and had the best interests of residents and other teammates in mind, are the types of employees we need to grow and attract. 

The people who stayed through the pandemic are this industry’s soldiers on the front lines. Yet before the pandemic, no one recognized their heroism, acknowledging only the accomplishments of leadership. The caregivers, the med techs, the people who do the hands-on work and have the emotional connection to the resident, were finally seen as essential during the pandemic. In my opinion, that word boosted the morale of our teammates who want to make a difference, and has helped us attract more people who show a dedication to caring for our residents

Can you speak a little more about how you think the pandemic spurred a change in the senior living workforce? 

Because of the pandemic, everybody was given the space to figure out if they were in the right role. If you were in the trenches during the pandemic, you dealt with some really serious, intense stuff. Everyone was trying to figure out how to get through it, and I feel extremely blessed in our industry that we figured it out collectively. My CEO, for example, reached out to other people in the industry and said, “this is what we’re seeing, how can we do this collectively?” It helped create the idea that we’re all in this together. That changed the mindset of the industry, to see that collaboration was possible on all levels.

So the trends are shifting, because the mindset is shifting, and you have to adjust to your workforce. I say all the time that it’s important to “know your audience” when you’re talking to your team, to appeal to what they’re going through. The pandemic gave us this base to allow the people who weren’t really vested in what our mission was to leave with grace. It was a clearing of the path. And now the front line workers, those still in essential jobs, have shown a heroism that they can be proud of. That sense of pride has done a tremendous amount to bring people into our industry for the right reasons. 

How do we as an industry keep that camaraderie and sense of pride going?

No one who survived the pandemic in our industry will forget what it was like. It’s almost on the same level of 9/11. But many people who weren’t personally affected by COVIDbelieve it wasn’t real. And when somebody says that to me, my head wants to explode. We lost lives, we lost colleagues, and you’re telling me that’s not real? So I do believe the camaraderie that we shared got us through the crisis and the recognition and the exposure has helped our industry. For the workers, it really did give them a boost to their ego, rightfully so.

Going forward, we have to remember we are a people business. We don’t sell shoes; we care for people. Everyone cares how you talk to them, how you make them feel, how kind you are, whether you listen. If you don’t care about those things, go sell shoes. We’re more aware now that we’re a people business, and I do believe anyone who came through the pandemic feels that way. Our job now is to remind our leadership we’re in the people business, and that extended to caring for our employees. You think you don’t have to say that, but you have to say it. 

What can employers do to help advocate for workers on the front lines?

The important thing as an employer is to provide a pathway to promotion. This is one of the only industries where you can not have a four year degree and still make really good money. You can work your way into certificate programs, for example. We have to do better in the industry of recognizing the caregiver’s potential to move to the next level. 

The media tends to focus on all the bad stuff. I often tell my team that while we have extremes on either side, in the middle are all these great dedicated people who are doing the work every day with heart and love for all the right reasons, and they get no credit at all in the larger conversation. We need to recognize that everybody has a role to fill, and every person is valuable.

Are there any other notable industry trends you’d like to address?

Well, I think we have more women in leadership positions than we’ve ever had in the past. These women who are now advancing the industry bring with them valuable, hands-on experience in communities, which isn’t often the case with male leaders.

As an industry, we went through the worst possible scenario, and everybody had to make some evaluations. And if the choice was for you to leave the industry, if that’s best for you and your family, that’s fine. But the people who stayed and found a calling are truly the heroes. We have people who stayed overnight in our buildings during the pandemic because we had an outbreak and they couldn’t leave and go home to their families, and they stayed and did the work of taking care of their residents. That’s amazing to me.

Many thanks to Debra for taking the time to share her valuable perspectives on the state of the senior living workforce. It’s refreshing to note that the pandemic, while one of the hardest things we’ve collectively experienced, may have helped refocus both employees and leaders on what’s really important, and we join Debra and Priority Life Care in emphasizing the importance of remembering those valuable lessons as we move forward.