PULLMAN – Just over a decade ago, Nancy Swanger and four senior living executives established the nation’s first senior living management course within a university hospitality program. At the time, Swanger, an associate professor of hospitality business management in the WSU Carson College of Business, didn’t know it was the beginning of something much larger. Something that would eventually lead to the United Nations recognizing her as one of the top 50 leaders in the world whose work is transforming health and wellbeing for aging populations.
On Sept. 22, the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing 50, an initiative to improve the lives of older people, their families, and their communities, announced Swanger and the other honorees on its website. According to a media release, the individuals were evaluated by an expert panel of reviewers from across international organizations with over 500 nominations received across all of the initiative’s sustainable development goal regions.
“It’s very humbling to receive global recognition for efforts aimed at educating and informing the next generation of leaders in seniors housing,” said Swanger, founder and director of the Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living at WSU. She’s also the associate dean for inter-college programs and the faculty athletics representative.
“We have always known Nancy is a leader of international stature. The United Nations recognition is a great honor to her and the Granger Cobb Institute,” said nominator Steve Tarr (’76, ’84), former executive vice president of Emeritus and colleague of Granger Cobb. “She has led students, administrators, and industry partners to build world-class educational programs, to the benefit of all of us who are growing older.”
Over a decade of work and insights to improve healthy aging
Since offering that first senior living management course back in 2011 in partnership with Aegis Living, Emeritus (now Brookdale Senor Living), Leisure Care, and Merrill Gardens leadership, Swanger has dedicated her career toward developing education, research, and service opportunities to keep up with the rapidly growing senior living industry.
As part of her work over the last decade, Swanger founded the Granger Cobb Institute to establish an ecosystem dedicated to raising the quantity and quality of caregivers globally. She developed an online, on demand senior living management certificate program that gives participants a better understanding of the industry and enhances their opportunities to advance to the next level within their current organizations. She also led the launch of a bachelor’s degree and a minor in senior living management and recently piloted a corporate scholars program giving students across majors a firsthand look at the rewards and opportunities to be had in the senior living industry.
She said the most rewarding aspect of her focus on senior living is seeing students find their way to senior living careers after taking a course or going on a field trip, regardless of their chosen major.
“Senior living education that results in well-trained employees matters in terms of making a daily, positive impact on the life of a resident. The career trajectory is long and steep; there are many opportunities for the next 40 years,” said Swanger. “Senior living communities are an extension of the hospitality industry with opportunities to positively impact the lives of residents, and those who serve them, on a daily basis.”
Swanger has first-hand experience that has influenced her commitment to advancing the quality of senior living. After her father died, Swanger moved her 89-year-old mother into an assisted living community near her home.
“The care of parents tends to fall on the oldest daughter, the only daughter, or the daughter-in-law. I am the only daughter, and I am not retired,” said Swanger. “Having my mom in my home and leaving her there during the day alone was not a healthy option. She needed some care and the socialization that community living provides. She loved it!”
Education is key to erasing the stigma of senior living
Her mother’s embrace of her new living situation further cemented Swanger’s aspiration to combat the stigma of senior living.
“Educating people to shift the paradigm from communities being a place to move in and die to a place of moving in to truly live is imperative,” she said. “As more people experience community living for aging relatives, the negative connotation of seniors housing will decrease.”
She said the top skills the future senior living workforce needs are passion, caring for others, flexibility, attention to detail, and a strong understanding of the senior living business model.
Going forward, Swanger plans to grow enrollment in both degree and nondegree programs and continue to build collaborative relationship with industry partners. She also plans to expand interdisciplinary research opportunities to improve the lives of current and future generations of older people.