Last week, Vashon Community Care (VCC) announced its intent to cease providing assisted living and memory care services, with a closure date sometime around the end of the year.
Residents, families and employees were notified of the decision on Sept. 10; an email also went out later that afternoon informing community members.
In a press release and subsequent interview with The Beachcomber, VCC’s executive director, Wendy Kleppe, and Jeff Slichta, an executive vice president for Transforming Age, the nonprofit organization that has owned VCC since 2017, explained the decision, saying the VCC’s operations were no longer sustainable due to a number of factors — all of which had been exacerbated by the pandemic.
They also said that VCC and Transforming Age had a deep commitment to finding alternative living arrangements for all residents, and provided some details about efforts they have launched to involve the broader Vashon community in what will come next for the building and grounds of the assisted living facility.
The most significant factor in the decision to cease operations, they said, was a critical budget shortfall caused by decreased demand for assisted living services on the island, and throughout the country as well. Only 68% of VCC’s apartments are now occupied, they said.
Kleppe and Slichta also cited a more intensely local problem —an insurmountable staffing shortage at the care facility, which factored importantly in the decision as well.
The problem was also described by VCC’s development director, Anne Atwell, in VCC’s email to the community, announcing the decision to close.
”Due to the high cost of living, lack of affordable housing and challenges of commuting by ferry, Vashon is an incredibly difficult place to hire, train and keep employees,” Atwell wrote.
In her interview, Kleppe further detailed how the problem has worsened during the pandemic, forcing VCC to turn to the costly practice of hiring shift workers employed by four off-island agencies. Kleppe said that this practice did not solve the problem. Agency shift workers, she said, did not feel a close connection to VCC, and frequently didn’t show up for work, due to ferry issues.
“We can’t find people to work in our building,” she said, noting that Vashon’s own large network of home-care providers was already engaged in responding to the increasing demand of islanders who wanted to stay at home and age in place.
“We know the island community cares deeply for VCC and our residents,” said Slichta. “But these latest challenges have made it so that VCC can no longer continue.”
The closure of the facility will displace some of Vashon’s most vulnerable residents.
Thirty-six residents currently occupy the 56 available apartments in VCC’s Aspiri Gardens Assisted Living and Beardsley Memory Support sections of VCC. All these residents will now need to relocate, an effort in which VCC will provide support and assistance, including paying the cost of moving expenses, said Kleppe and Slichta.
The efforts to assist residents and their families will continue as long as needed, they said — hence VCC’s lack of specificity in naming an exact date for the closure of the facility. This effort could last into early 2022, they said.
“It’s really all about the residents and finding appropriate placement for them,” Slichta said. “That is our number one priority and concern.”
Kleppe said she and Susan Riemer, community relations director of VCC, were now working one-on-one with residents and their families to ensure that everyone receives the help and guidance they need going forward.
[We’re] developing a plan and are in touch with families just to determine what they want,” she said. “It’s very individualized.”
Families who rely on Medicaid, she said, will also be assisted by a social worker in their search for their new care settings. Transforming Age, Slichta added, would also provide an additional array of resources support for VCC residents and their families in their difficult transitions.
Headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, Transforming Age owns and operates 47 senior living communities and has more than 2,000 employees.
Kleppe acknowledged the deeply emotional work involved in this work with residents and their families.
“These people who live here — this is their home,” she said.
VCC has also promised to work with 42 current staff members to help them find new employment, including ongoing resume and job search support. In addition to this, VCC will provide retention bonuses for employees who stay through the end of the year.
Only 36% of VCC’s current employees reside on Vashon, Kleppe said.
“We’re going to do our best to take care of our team members and help them during the transition,” said Kleppe.
VCC has been losing money for the last several years and has relied on Transforming Age to make up operating losses. In total, Transforming Age has supported VCC with more than $4 million since 2018, according to Slichta.
In taking over the operation of VCC in 2017, Transforming Age also assumed ownership of VCC’s building, which came with an outstanding $6 million loan from the Department of Housing and Development (HUD) — a debt that Transforming Age assumed and is still making payments on.
The building is currently assessed as being worth $6.5 million, according to property records.
All viable options for the building and grounds, including sale or rental of the property, are currently on the table, Slichta said, adding that it was a top priority for Transforming Age and VCC to work with islanders to find a way to maintain the property as a resource to the community.
VCC has already taken an initial step toward this goal by convening a task force of community leaders to explore housing and social service needs and how the building could be used.
The names of these islanders, and the agencies they are affiliated with, will soon be released, Kleppe said, promising to be open and transparent about the work of the group as it continues. At this point, she said, membership in the task force was still somewhat fluid, as only two meetings had been held.
With the closure of VCC, islanders will once again have a chance to reimagine and rehabilitate the site of a valuable and longtime community resource — one that they have fought before to save.
The facility has roots dating back to 1928 when Goodwill Industries purchased the Ellsworth Ranch and established a working farm and boarding house for destitute men and women from Seattle. It was subsequently sold to a couple who also ran the farmhouse and grounds as a rehabilitation site, and then later as a nursing home as their residents aged. Years passed, and the property changed hands again several times but continued to be operated as a care facility until 1995, when the owners at that time announced their intention to close the facility — a move that would displace 36 residents.
But the community immediately rallied to save the care facility.
An effort led by Ted Kutscher and Ted Clabaugh brought together 30 islanders who pledged loans to guarantee the lease of the property. Within two weeks, the activists organized a nonprofit, Vashon Community Care Center, to keep the facility operating.
The group quickly discovered that an entirely new facility would be needed within five years because of the deteriorating state of the original building and new regulations for care centers. The board of VCC took on the challenge and enlisted the cooperation of Providence Health System to purchase the property and plan the construction of a new facility.
The new building, with a 40-apartment assisted living facility, a 30-bed nursing home and a five-day-a-week adult daycare program, opened in August 2001, managed by Providence Mount St. Vincent.
The relationship with Providence ended in 2017, and VCC’s affiliation with Transforming Age began.
In 2019, VCC announced that it would close its skilled nursing facility and began a renovation project of that wing of the facility, turning the 16 residents’ rooms into studio apartments for those who need enhanced assisted living services and memory care.
According to Kleppe, the move was made at the time due to a perceived need for memory care on the island, as well as to alleviate previous staffing issues caused by the need for qualified professional nurses to staff the facility.
At the same time, Transforming Age announced that VCC would launch a $3 million capital campaign to pay for the renovation and other building improvements. Kleppe, in her interview with The Beachcomber, said she was not aware of that happening or being scheduled.
Both she and Slichta said, while expressing deep gratitude for the philanthropic gifts of many islanders for many years, that VCC’s sustainability issues had become too deeply embedded to solve by fundraising.
“The operation itself — regardless of how much money we put into it — the demand is actually decreasing on the island for the types of services we were providing,” Slichta said.
Kleppe concurred, pointing again to the trends of seniors aging in place, and describing how this need was being met on Vashon by the successful efforts by other agencies on the island, including the Vashon Care Network and the Senior Center.
“The Senior Center does incredible work, and the new Villages concept they are working on there is phenomenal,” she said. “They provide so many services and ways for people to stay home [to a] clientele that would typically be moving into a community setting in assisted living. So those factors are the driver on top of the financial shortfall we’ve been experiencing for a very long time.”
Correction: The story, as originally published in print and online, incorrectly quoted Wendy Kleppe as saying that a $3 million capital campaign for VCC, that was announced in 2019, never happened. Kleppe, instead, said that she was not aware of the campaign happening or being scheduled. We regret the error.