Just a few weeks shy of her 9-year anniversary as Executive Director of Grace Ridge Retirement Community in Morganton, NC, Brenda Yost is embarking on her own retirement adventure: A move to Auburn, Ala., back into the same home she and her husband, Danny, originally moved into 31 years ago. We sat down with Brenda to reflect on her time at Grace Ridge and find out what her plans are for life’s fourth quarter.
A Match Made in Heaven
Brenda Yost didn’t initially pursue the role of Executive Director at Grace Ridge. Rather, the opportunity serendipitously found her.
Needing to move back to North Carolina from Alabama to be closer to her mom, Brenda applied for a few jobs near the I-85 corridor, including Patient Safety Officer at Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Carolinas HealthCare System). However, the human resources department thought Brenda’s geriatric nursing skills were a better fit for a different position: Executive director at a hospital-affiliated retirement community.
“Long story short, I came to Morganton for an interview and fell in love with the people and fell in love with the place,” she said. “I knew I wanted the job and that it was something I wanted to do. It was like a match made in heaven.”
First Impressions, Tearing Down Barriers
During her first 30 days, Brenda jotted down her observations and questions in a notebook that she recently came across while cleaning out her office. Sparse landscaping, decades old carpet with duct tape on the seams and a bird aviary in need of some TLC were noted in the book.
And so, Brenda began implementing small improvements that went a long way in resident satisfaction: replacing carpet, updating décor, putting up bulletin boards, revamping the process for nursing charges, making improvements to the housekeeping and nursing departments, implementing inspections at the beauty shop, streamlining and simplifying contracts, and taking more of a wellness approach to resident care.
An Agent of Change, A Leader of Autonomy
In the meantime, Brenda also was focused on building relationships with the community’s parent company and staff and exploring ways to help boost employee morale. “I knew right away that we had a lot of talent here, but the staff operated in silos and did not work together. They were afraid to venture out and do things they knew would benefit the residents,” she said.
Tearing down barriers, team building and bringing Grace Ridge leaders together as one operating unit became a priority for Brenda. “We had our first leadership retreat in the summer of 2009 at a lake house that belonged to one of our residents,” she said. “The goal of the retreat was to let go of the past and realize we were in a new day … and by the end of the retreat, I think we accomplished that.”
All of the leadership principles Brenda needs are in the Bible. “My faith is woven into all aspects of my life and it’s what drives my honesty and genuineness,” she said. When she looks back on her career, Brenda said her greatest success as a leader has been bringing people out of their silos to work together, focusing on strengths while minimizing weaknesses, and stepping back and giving her team autonomy.
“During my early days at Grace Ridge, some people were not on the right seat on the bus and some people were not on the right bus,” she explained. “We’ve made many changes to reach the fabulous team we’ve had now for about five years.”
Once a Nurse, Always a Nurse
Brenda’s career spans four decades, specializing in geriatric nursing after various clinical and nurse leader positions the first 20 years. She eventually moved into administration, but her clinical skills have been an asset at Grace Ridge.
“In the early days, we needed a lot of help in nursing, so I was hands-on because I was comfortable doing it,” she said. “If I was walking down the hall and the light was on, I would answer it. If someone needed help getting to the toilet, I did it.”
The former “IV Queen” once even restarted an IV for a resident with challenging veins – after not having done one in several years. She said, “I got it on the first stick. I was so excited!”
A Legacy of Achievements
By 2012, Brenda was fully immersed in the Grace Ridge culture and system and her leadership team was wholly united. And that’s when Team Grace Ridge really hit its stride.
Many of the projects started that year have a lasting impact that continues today: Phase I of major renovations (Phase II is currently underway), focusing on landscaping and beautification, and making a concerted effort to market Grace Ridge and promote its Good Moods way of life.
Other accomplishments Brenda is particularly proud of involve her giving staff the freedom to shine and make a project all their own. One recent example is the beautifully executed 30th anniversary celebration (thanks to the year-long efforts of Evelyn Beaver and her committee); another is the addition of a Snoezelen room in health care.
Several years ago, when Massage Therapist Alice Clay approached Brenda about converting an old tub room into a massage room, she agreed … with a caveat. “I said, ‘Alice, you can use the room for massages, but have you ever heard of a Snoezelen room? Make the tub room one and it’s yours!’”
With that support, Alice began researching therapeutic environments and created for Grace Ridge a calming space with soft music and lighting and relaxing sounds. “It’s been a wonderful asset and a resident favorite,” Brenda said. “Because of the Snoezelen room, we’ve been able to reduce the amount of psychotropics and other drugs used to help calm our health care residents.”
Awards and Accolades
During Brenda’s tenure, Grace Ridge has received a slew of recognition for its caring staff, top-notch facilities, unique programming and vibrant and active residents. The two that stand out most are Evelyn Beaver and Charity Elliott’s back-to-back Pinnacle Awards from Carolinas HealthCare System.
“It’s the highest award for CHS teammates who best exemplify the organization’s core values of caring, commitment, integrity and teamwork,” she said. “The fact that Grace Ridge had winners two years in a row from this huge hospital system is a great indicator of the kinds of people we have and it’s why we earned all these other accolades.”
She added, “What makes Grace Ridge different is genuineness and authenticity. A lot of retirement communities can say they are all about the heart. But, of all the places I’ve worked or visited, everyone here truly cares about the residents. They are not just here for a job.”
Exploring the Dynamics of Being an Executive Director
Being the executive director of a retirement community is kind of like being a town leader, Brenda said. You have to understand and run all aspects of the business. You have to know all the department leaders and the people of the community. You have to juggle politics, be tactful in your responses to naysayers and make decisions for the majority.
“I learned a long time ago in my career – when I was a young nursing manager – that you’re never going to make all the people happy all the time, so my goal has been to make most of the people happy most of the time,” she said. “Everyone has a voice and I listen to everyone, but when I have to put something into action, I try to follow the majority – if it makes good business sense.”
Handling complainers is not easy, Brenda said, but she tries to always be empathetic. “When someone has a short temper for a short period of time, it’s usually because they are under stress, either with a health issue or as a caregiver,” she explained. “When people are burdened with caregiving, they are going to lash out at others and they are going to complain about things they never would complain about if they weren’t stressed.”
A Lifetime of Memories, Saying Goodbye to Family
When Brenda officially ends her run at Grace Ridge on Jan. 26, she won’t be leaving residents and co-workers. She’ll be leaving family.
Whether it was enjoying a glass of wine after work in a resident’s apartment, learning her husband was a distant cousin of a resident, organizing a Being Mortal group book study, or spending a snowy day at Pisgah National Forest with her leadership team, Brenda has no shortage of wonderful memories with her Grace Ridge family.
Even experiences shrouded in death and sadness have left a heartening imprint on her. Brenda recalled making rounds in the dining room shortly after she joined Grace Ridge. One resident questioned why she was spending time trying to become friends with residents. After all, it wasn’t part of her job as an administrator, he said. Brenda responded that she couldn’t do her job without getting to know the residents.
“He said, ‘You know this is our last stop. We’re all going to die and if you get to know us, you’ll just have your heart broken.’ My response to him was, ‘Yes, I’ll be very sad, but my life will be so much better for having known you.’”
When that same resident was on his deathbed, he asked Brenda to take care of his wife. His was one of the many funerals she has attended over the years. “I always try to be there for the families because it’s a loss to Grace Ridge and it’s a loss to me. All of our residents who have passed have made an impact and their print in the world,” she said.
Loving Comfort and Support from the Grace Ridge Family
In 2016, Brenda experienced the heartbreaking loss of both her mother and husband. “The way the residents and the people I work with have loved and supported me has been tremendous,” she said. “I can’t imagine having been anywhere else.”
Shortly after Danny’s unexpected passing, the leadership team paid touching tribute to him at the Friendship Garden dedication, where they presented Brenda with a wind sculpture; the day remains one of her most cherished memories of Grace Ridge.
While her mom was in memory care, Brenda got to know the staff from a family member’s perspective. “To walk into my mom’s room at night and hear a nurse praying with her was so memorable. I was able to experience what it’s like for the family members of our residents and that brought me comfort,” she said.
During those difficult days, Brenda also drew peace and comfort from residents. The day she called her sister to let her know about their mom’s passing, resident Millie Gordon was playing piano in the lobby, unaware of Brenda’s presence. “She was playing some of my mom’s favorite hymns. I just sat down and cried and listened to her play.”
The Best is Yet to Come
The next Executive Director of Grace Ridge may have some cavernous shoes to fill, but Brenda is quick to offer succinct, yet sage advice to the not-yet-named leader: Be involved, perceptive, honest, transparent and genuine.
“I’d love to see Grace Ridge keep moving down the path it’s currently on – continuing upgrades and renovations, continuing our marketing efforts and Good Moods, and continuing to grow our wonderful team,” she said. “The current leadership of our parent company has a good understanding of the business of Grace Ridge and I think that will help ensure the best is yet to come.”
Looking Ahead, Final Reflection
Just because she’s retiring from full-time employment doesn’t mean Brenda has any plans to slow down as she moves into her life’s fourth quarter.
Spending time with her three children and 14 grandchildren (ages 2 to 20) in Memphis, Tulsa and Birmingham will keep her busy. She’ll also continue her role as a CARF surveyor and will join a women’s walking group that meets each morning right in front of her house. And, she’ll work on checking off items from her bucket list: reading 14 books a year (one for each grandchild), playing piano more and traveling (Alaska, Galapagos Islands and the Great Lakes are on her list).
She added, “I hope I’m remembered as having made a positive difference in the lives of the people at Grace Ridge. My time here has been a blessing and the best way to end a career. Mixed emotions and nervousness have subsided and been replaced with excitement and anticipation for new adventures and opportunities.”