Aging gracefully

Aging gracefully

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0214 PROFILE2
Rose Villa CEO Vassar Byrd
// Photo by Jason Kaplan

BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG

Sometimes Vassar Byrd feels like a loser. After all, when the CEO of Milwaukie’s Rose Villa retirement community measures her 51 years against the decades of experience of the elders she spends her days with, how can the comparison be anything but humbling?

“I find out things residents have done that are astounding,” says the lanky, smoky-voiced chief executive. “They come to us with huge histories.”

In a culture where the elderly are not always valued, Byrd’s humility is uncommon. And in an industry where most executives’ backgrounds are in business, her education in gerontology is also rare. Yet Byrd’s knowledge of and respect for seniors are manifest not only in how she has rejuvenated Rose Villa, but also in how she is remaking the nonprofit continuing-care community as it undergoes a major redevelopment.

 “As I plan for the future, I have to stay connected to the residents,” Byrd says. “For me, that’s where the juice comes from.”

Byrd started down her winding path to Rose Villa as an economist. After growing up in Vancouver, Wash., the left-brained “fast processor” enrolled in the London School of Economics with grandiose notions of leading the International Monetary Fund. 

Byrd quickly learned, however, that “super- high-level economics was just super-boring math.” Post graduation, the extrovert found human connection in consulting, eventually moving back to the Portland area for a job with ECONorthwest.

Then Dorothy happened. Byrd had started volunteering for Meals on Wheels and found herself regularly spending as much as an hour with this last client on her delivery route, captivated by the wheelchair-bound woman’s stories of bucking gender stereotypes in the Pendleton Round-Up. “I blame it all on her,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to have more of this.’”

Chasing that feeling, Byrd went through the state’s certification program to become a volunteer long-term care ombudsman. But she got a rude awakening when the facility she was assigned to monitor turned out to be a foul-smelling, dismal nursing home. After a nursing aide purposely let slip that patients’ medications were not being properly disposed of, Byrd built a case proving the facility’s director of nursing services was using and selling narcotics prescribed to residents. She was in the courtroom when the Oregon attorney general stripped the owners of their licenses for life.

“That all happened and I was unable to just keep going with my regular economist life,” Byrd says. “I called the [state long-term care] ombudsman and asked: ‘If you wanted to run your own alternative, hippie, commune nursing home, how would you go about doing that?’”