Chris MasonTalking with Christian “Chris” Mason about his career in assisted living is like reading a classic novel. It has an intriguing start and continues with a sequence of life events that connect and spark the next great chapter. At the end, the reader reflects on what has transpired, gaining an intellectual boost and a new appreciation for those who find great joy in caring for the elderly.

Mason embodies personal and professional development. There’s Chris Mason the assisted living pioneer, with his own former community—Bridgewood Rivers in Roseburg—being one of the two that were the first communities in the state of Oregon to receive assisted living licensure.

Then there’s Chris Mason the business owner, the father, and chair of the National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL).

“I guess you can say that I’ve been in it since the beginning,” says Mason. “And that led me down the path I’m on.”

An Early Start

But for Mason, his beginning started earlier. At 16, he witnessed his grandfather fall ill with cancer and receive care in a nursing center. “My grandfather and I were very close. I would visit him every day. And I missed him when he passed away,” says Mason. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be something that I could do to make a difference.’”

That’s when he turned toward a career in therapy. While working as a certified nurse assistant at a center in northern Vermont, Mason studied therapy and applied mathematics. It was during these formative years that he learned that the family and care team must be in sync to provide the best care.

Soon after, Mason realized he wasn’t finished learning just yet. He went back to school to become a nursing home administrator. His motivation: to be more effective at a higher level.

Making Memories Count

At the start of his career as a skilled nursing center administrator, Mason was working in Montgomery, Ala. While many residents are memorable, one stands out in his mind—a young man named Don who was a former linebacker on the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. He had been in an automobile accident and was paralyzed from the neck down.

“We got to become good friends,” recalls Mason. “We would sit and talk about things that meant so much to him. He was a big outdoorsman, he loved to hunt and go camping.

“Here he was—this 275-pound man confined to a bed. It was back then when I thought I could conquer the world, so I made the decision that we were going to go camping.”

Mason let all the residents know and had to plead with staff to come along. After finding a handicap-accessible site, Mason made the trip with other residents and staff, leaving behind a sign on the door that read: Gone Camping. “It rained the whole time we were there, but everyone had a great time,” says Mason. “And I’m proud to say it’s something we’re still doing, 30 years later.”

Growing Up the Ladder

Over time, Mason grew within his company as administrator. “I had a knack for fixing things, and they noticed,” he says. The company’s directors sent him to communities that they would buy that were broken and had problems. Mason would work together with the team to figure out what the problem was, decide which staff were working out and which staff weren’t, and fix the flaws.

When one of the owners started his own company, Mason joined as an operating partner. There he worked for several years until a new door opened. The head of the Oregon state government senior services department was doing a tour through the state to talk about giving seniors more choice and independence.
Hearing the new direction, Mason jumped right in. He joined a small group of leaders and developed and built one of the state’s first assisted living communities.

It wasn’t long before Mason set his sights on a new venture. “I watched the changes that were occurring in acuity and thought we had some gaps,” he says. “So I went out and started a software company.”

And so Vigilan came to be. Mason honed his mathematics background and experience as an administrator to focus on time-based metrics. The company produced an acuity-based assessment tool that allowed customers to assess residents’ needs and to have the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time. 

Mason’s insights into the world of caregiving gave him a boost to starting to build a company from the ground up. “Let’s say a resident needs assistance with bathing. It’s very different if it is standby assistance or total assistance,” he says. “Total assistance means you’re working at the staff member’s pace. Standby assistance means you’re working at the resident’s pace. In actuality, standby assistance takes more time.
“It’s understanding how those elements affect a person’s choices and quality of care that really got me interested in building that company, so I worked on it for many years.”

Today, Mason is president and chief executive officer of Senior Housing Managers. Located in Wilsonville, Ore., Senior Housing Managers operates assisted living, residential care communities, and nursing centers in Oregon and Washington. Following a servant leadership model, the company has never turned someone away.

“We have a lot of low-income residents, a lot of Medicaid,” he says. “We’re never going to get rich at it, but we’re sure having a lot of fun taking care of people.”

Looking Ahead

Being chair of NCAL has granted Mason an even larger sense of responsibility. His advice to providers is to embrace their role in meeting the demands and expectations for both millennials as workers and baby boomers as residents and patients.

About 60 percent of Mason’s staff is millennial, including his own son, Carl. “I’ve learned the millennial perspective from him,” says Mason. “He works 12-14 hour days, but he wants to work them when he wants to work them. He’ll come in early and leave early for the gym at two o’clock, and then he’ll work at home later that evening.”

And, just like millennials, baby boomers will have demands that providers must meet, simultaneously.
A baby boomer himself, Mason can relate. “I’m a hard-core Boston Red Sox fan,” he says. “I want the paper, my coffee (Starbucks, latte, nonfat), and fresh flowers brought to my room. I want the score circled, and if the Red Sox lost, break it to me gently.

“It’s all about expectations. As providers, it’s our role to meet these expectations. We do that by listening to them.”

Life-long Learner

Mason is currently seeking two PhDs: one in theology and the other in business administration with a focus in management and ethics. “My friends all say, ‘You’re 58 years old, what do you need to do that for?’” jokes Mason. “I’m intrigued. We’re about to hand the reins of leadership to the next generation. I look at that and think, ‘What is it that they need to know, what do we need to share?’”

The motivations for individuals to volunteer and work takes priority for Mason, especially as the long term and post-acute care sector grapples with a caregiver shortage and seeks to attract new talent. In the coming months, he plans to survey about 4,000 health care leaders in the United States to ask what motivates them to donate time.

“The volunteerism in millennials is about half of what it was with baby boomers,” says Mason. “We need to understand why. Whether it’s in work-related situations or volunteer situations, being able to understand that allows us to know what qualities are important to them so that we can then make sure that we are putting the right things out there to attract them.”

Paving Career Pathways

For Mason, learning from other great leaders has deep value, because best practices can be applied to day-to-day business.

Take the learning organization concept, coined by Peter Senge, author of the book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.” According to the book, this is an organization where individuals continually expand their capacities to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, and collective aspiration is the norm.

“It’s really about the organization’s members transforming themselves,” says Mason. “But if you go one step further, you have what I would call a developmental organization.”

In LT/PAC, this organization focuses on developing the three groups involved in an individual’s care: the family, the resident, and the staff. Similar to a three-legged stool, says Mason, “if those legs aren’t all in sync, and they aren’t all working together, the stool will fall. And for staff, this means developing all employees, not just those in management.”

The Pyramid Program

It was with this concept in mind that Mason developed his company’s pyramid program, which aims to attract the right talent and retain that talent with professional development opportunities. “When you hire someone, do you hire them for a job, or do you hire them for a career?” Mason asks. “Millennials on average switch jobs less than every two years, but you want them for longer.”

New employees benefit from mentor and career counseling from the time that they are hired.  They have a career map that is planned out for them, and can reap benefits as they progress up the ladder, says Mason. “If you are truly of the right mind and you fit, here’s a wonderful opportunity for a career,” he says. “It’s all about continuity and longevity when it comes to care.”

Covering the Unexpected

The program works. About half of the executive directors employed by Mason’s company started out as certified nurse assistants. It also provides a way for staff to have their shifts covered, should an unexpected event arise.

When an employee had to take off because her son fell and broke her arm, she was able to choose from a list of individuals who were cross-trained in the kitchen. A fellow staff member covered for her. “The residents had a great meal,” says Mason. “The staff member that came in and filled the role was happy to do that. At the end of the day, it was about that continuity.”

Other benefits are that staff can learn new jobs, receive an automatic merit increase when they complete training, and can be next in line when job openings occur.

It can be a clear selling point to attracting the right talent, Mason says. “If they are motivated and they want to learn and grow, here’s a path.”