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 Interview: Ashley Blankenship

Arkansan Comes Full Circle in her Assisted Living Journey

 

Ashley Blankenship
Ashley Blankenship, chair of the National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL) and American Health Care Association board member, could draw a full circle to show her path to becoming a leader in the assisted living (AL) profession.
 
The starting point for Blankenship would be as a young girl watching her mother Liz work as a registered nurse in skilled nursing facilities in the 1970s in Arkansas, an experience that left a lasting impression on her that remains fresh to this day.

Early Days

Skilled facilities back then were of a different breed than today, she says, giving Blankenship a unique perspective on how care delivery and the environment in which residents live have improved over these past four-plus decades. “When I was younger, say three years old, it was kind of scary being in a nursing home and running around,” she says. “But now it’s been a huge change and a positive change.”

With her mother dedicated to a long term and post-acute care (LT/PAC) nursing and then ownership/operator career, it was only natural that Blankenship would gain experience as Liz transitioned from skilled nursing to AL. That occurred in 1994 when her mother started her first residential care facility, a building where Ashley worked as a caregiver on summer breaks from college.

From that point on, Blankenship could have taken a straight line to a career in AL, with her mom leading the way as an industry leader in helping to write the first state regulations for AL in Arkansas.

Blankenship, however, was on the circuitous path, so finding her way back to AL took some time. First, she says she held a job with a data collection company, then working for Delta Airlines, traveling the world and living in New York City from the late 1990s to mid-2000s.

Real estate came into the picture eventually, as did a return to home base in Arkansas, which led to a fortuitous “accidental” job with her mother’s company after the office manager was absent during a payroll period. Enter the daughter, who knew how to do payroll. “I never left, and fell in love” with being in the AL business, Blankenship says.

Expansion and Progress

From that point on the story of the Blankenships, which includes Ashley’s sister Gretchen, revolved around expansion and new growth. Eventually, the family owned and operated four facilities in Arkansas, with Ashley acting as administrator at one or the other of the buildings before assuming the title of vice president of operations, managing the education of all new hires and the mentoring program, among her many duties.

Her role, and that for her family, shifted yet again when this past February the Blankenships sold their business to Lierman family-owned and -operated StoneBridge Senior Living, a part of Eldercare Management Services based in St. Charles, Mo.

But even as Liz retired, Ashley remained with the new owners and is the director of services and operations for assisted living, with oversight of six AL communities with 429 units in Arkansas, including the four her family used to own.

“The transition went well,” Blankenship says. “It was a huge factor to keep our culture alive, and we wanted to make sure that residents we have grown to care for and love and the staff we have grown to care for were taken care of,” she says.

Leading the Charge at NCAL

Looking beyond her Arkansas responsibilities, Blankenship is squarely focused on what will be an eventful term as NCAL chair. She says for the coming year there are four priorities in place to guide NCAL’s work for its members, all under the umbrella of the Quality Initiative for Assisted Living. One is to reduce staff turnover, two is to increase staff and resident satisfaction, three is to lower the use of antipsychotics, and four is to cut the number of unnecessary rehospitalizations.

“Overall, I think membership’s largest concern is workforce and the challenge of finding quality caregivers that our residents deserve and keeping them on the job in a very competitive profession, in which all are competing for the same staff,” Blankenship says.

Although NCAL is a national organization, the regulation of AL is a state-level issue, meaning there has to be a nuanced approach to guiding membership on any given issue, including workforce, she says. “So, the AL operator in Arkansas may have different regulations on the type of caregiver they can hire versus other states. Those regulations come into play, and we have wonderful state leaders and state executive programs to be able to work with individual states,” Blankenship says.

In targeting staffing recruitment and retention, she says her own communities have benefited from the introduction of flexible scheduling, giving more leeway for part-time workers to choose their hours, which in turn gives full-time staff the ability to schedule off time with the knowledge that part-time workers will be there to provide quality care.

Blankenship says in addition to logistical assistance like flexible hours to build workforce stability, her facilities have programs in place to attract young workers through high school, adult education, and college-affiliated training programs and course work. All of these steps are needed to keep pace with an AL community’s needs, but there is also an X factor in play for those choosing LT/PAC as a profession, she says.

“Just as residents want a homelike setting, your staff do too. They want to feel like a member of your community’s family, feel like they are important, that their voice counts,” Blankenship says.

She should know what works and what does not, and how the evolution of AL has brought new challenges and new opportunities to the fore. “I was really born into long term care,” she says. And, like her mother, who has always been in long term care, the circle is complete as Ashley has returned to the fold.
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