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 Jan Thayer, ‘Grand Dame’ Of Assisted Living Advocates, Dies After Long Struggle With Cancer

Jan Thayer, the “grand dame” of assisted living who advocated tirelessly for quality care of the nation’s elderly but still found time to wow crowds with her singing voice, over the weekend after a two-year battle with non-smoker’s lung cancer.

“Jan’s professional motto was ‘to deliver the same care that you would provide for your own mother,’ and it was a motto she lived by for the 25-plus years she owned and operated Riverside Lodge in Grand Island, Neb.,” National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL) Executive Director David Kyllo said.

Kyllo and Thayer worked together for years, but he also considers her “the best person I’ve met in my life,” he told Provider. She started her working life as a dietitian in the 1960s and crossed over into long term care two decades later, Kyllo says.

Petite and beautiful, Thayer was still a powerful and forceful leader, friends recalled.

“If she believed in a cause and it was the right thing, you weren’t going to change her mind,” says Howie Groff, former chair of NCAL’s board.

Groff recalled an evening wine-and-beer reception where, having said hello to his old friend, he asked her if she wanted a drink.

“You know what I could go for?” Groff recalls Thayer saying. “A Gentleman Jack.”

There was none on the premises, but Groff had no intention of disappointing Thayer. A bartender was dispatched down the street and returned with the proper drink. “You know the commercial? You can always trust a woman who drinks bourbon? Everything that Jan said, you could bank on it.”

From her native Nebraska (where she was a rabid fan of her old Bug Eaters--her residents’ tailgate parties at Riverside were the stuff of legend), Thayer became a state and national leader in the profession, always pushing her colleagues to bring care decisions closest to the residents themselves.

She held several leadership positions in the Nebraska Health Care Association, as well as the American Health Care Association and NCAL.

“Not only was she a pioneer, but she always, always, always helped the residents first. And you never heard her talk about anything but what can we do for the residents,” Groff says.

Under Thayer’s leadership, NCAL took huge strides in developing its guiding principles, which the organization “still holds dear,” Groff says. 

As Kyllo sees it, “the guiding principles made NCAL known as an advocate for person-centered, quality- focused responsible public policy.”

But life, as Thayer understood it, was much too important to be taken seriously: Kyllo says he and other friends felt like they were opening their first bottle of champagne any time Thayer was near. Kyllo recalled one evening in a D.C. restaurant the piano player heard Thayer singing along. So impressed was the piano man that he invited her on stage.

“She ended up doing the whole show. Everybody in the crowd was saying, ‘Let her sing.’ And she did,” Kyllo recalls. “She wowed the whole crowd.”

That wasn’t the first time someone would say that about her.

Besides her husband, Ernie, Thayer is survived by her three sons and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements can be found here.

(Bill Myers is Provider’s senior editor. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter, @ProviderMyers.)

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