For Debbie Lewis, the executive director at Brookdale West Palm Beach, her title is more than just a job — it’s a role she performs with pride. From the moment she first encountered working with older adults during her Licensed Practical Nurse rotation, she knew this was where her career would thrive. Being a part of a caring community where she could grow and help others grow has been a highlight of her six years at Brookdale. To find out more about her career journey, read on.
Q: For someone who hasn’t heard of the title before, what exactly is a senior living executive director?
A: You’re basically the CEO of your building. Regardless of what the community is, whether it’s assisted living, independent living or memory care, you are responsible for the day-to-day operations of everything.
Q: That sounds like a lot of responsibility.
A: It certainly can be.
Q: I’m sure every day is a little different, but on a day-to-day basis, what do your days look like?
A: Really every day is different, but there are some non-negotiables. There are some things that have to happen in order for me to be successful. I tend to come in very early, not because it’s expected of me, but because it’s when I get my best work done. I come in about 7 a.m. and go through my emails. I look at my sales activity to see what leads have come in since I last checked. I’m aware of what visits are scheduled for the day and of any tours coming into the community.
Then I walk my community. I get into a lot of the buildings, I check in with the department heads that are here, I walk the dining room. That’s one piece that I make sure I do without fail, every day. It might just be a 10-minute walkthrough with a coffee pot, but it gives me that daily connection with the residents and staff where I’m not there with an agenda other than to just be present and hear what they have to say. Other than scheduled meetings, scheduled conference calls, scheduled reports that are due, there’s very little else that is predictable.
Q: What are some favorite parts of your day?
A: [Walking] the dining room is one of my favorites because I get to have that interaction I may not get otherwise. There may be some residents who don’t come out of their apartments a whole lot, and that’s my chance to see those people too, unless I go to their apartments. Time with my staff is awesome too. I love being able to know that this work family we’ve created here can have fun together and laugh, but can be incredibly focused and creative when trying to find solutions for our residents.
Q: What are some of the tougher parts of your job?
A: Well, it’s interesting because it’s one of the toughest parts but it’s also one of the most rewarding, and that’s the residents’ complaints. Residents or their families come in and may be worried about something, whether it’s something to do with their Brookdale experience or something in their own lives. It’s hard because nobody likes dealing with complaints, but the satisfying part is coming out on the other end of that and finding a solution. It’s about finding that happy spot where the resident and their family feels heard and we have a plan in place to make them feel better.
Q: It’s great that they have the opportunity to come to you with their concerns.
A: Brookdale has a very strong open-door policy, starting at the top with corporate leadership. People are respectful of our personal space, but it’s awesome having residents always feel that there’s someone there for them, and their families, too. I like knowing that they feel that they can reach out to me, even if it’s with a quick text to get a question answered in the moment.
Q: What was your journey to becoming an executive director?
A: I started college as a music therapy and music education double major. I thought I was going to love it, but I hated it. I ended up withdrawing from college and moved from Miami to the west coast of Florida. One day my car broke down in the parking lot of the vocational-technical school. I walked into the health services building to use the phone and there was a brochure there that said “Practical Nursing: Apply Now”, and I thought “Huh, okay.” And I did. That’s where my path started. I became an LPN, and when I did a rotation in a nursing home and I fell in love with older adults and knew this was my path.
I did that for about eight years until I stumbled into a position at an assisted living community that had an opening for a director of nursing. That began my journey into management. After my first six months, I was promoted to the administrator role. I worked for that company for 13 years, moving from director of nursing to executive director to a regional role until that position was eliminated, and my career was at a crossroads. I realized I was really longing to get back into a community. That’s when I applied here at Brookdale to the assisted living director position as I just wanted to get back and have that community feel again. I was in that role for about a year and a half before I moved into the executive director role here.
Q: It sounds like this is a job that requires you to be a caring person. Who do you think would be a good fit for this job?
A: The personality types that would do really well in this would be problem solvers. People who like finding solutions. They think outside the box. They look for things to make better. People who have a strong sense of community. You don’t need to be an extrovert, but you have to have the ability to act like one.
For me, I think being open to growth is important. I’ve been given some incredible opportunities. I’ve been mentored by strong people along the way, so being able to see the potential in others and help them grow is one of the most satisfying parts of my job.