By Jennifer DeGregorio / Special to WLAA
If you have ever entered a crowded room where Dean Solden is present, you would surely remember. He is charismatic and energetic, contagiously full of life. If there is a piano nearby, Dean will start playing a tune that sounds familiar to you, then interject his own lyrics, creating a spoof on a current event.
Dean is also, interestingly, an expert on managing COVID-19 in assisted living facilities.
When I first met Dean, through his equally colorful wife, an internationally known therapist and author, I was surprised to learn that not only was he a professional musician, but he also managed and operated assisted living throughout the state of Michigan, and was very, very passionate about it. Here was this vibrant jazz musician who was actually excited about the senior care industry.
It all started 30 years ago when Dean met a girl. He was a musician living in the Bay area of California teaching music when he met her. Soon after, her father, an internationally selling artist as well as real estate developer in the Detroit area, had fallen ill. “In the last deal of his life, on a fluke, he acquired a nursing home,” said Dean.
Dean, an entrepreneur in his own right, began commuting to Detroit one week a month for three years to learn the business of running a nursing home. He enjoyed the business, but there was something that was bothering him. He realized that, while their company was providing excellent care, the quality of life for many residents was not what it should be. It dawned on him that that was because of the structure of the industry itself.
The nursing home industry started in the 1960’s when there were one million people in the country who needed care, without hospitalization. This was the result of 20th century advances in medicine which started increasing the lifespan of people into their 70’s. Women started working and their roles of staying home to take care of the elderly began to shift.
“As they were creating the senior care industry, instead of creating residential models, thinking about a person’s quality of life as well as their care, institutional models of care were built,” explained Dean. “Nursing home buildings looked like hospitals. They were models built for care, not living.”
In 1990, Dean attended the first Assisted Living national conference. He met younger people, like himself, who wanted to revolutionize senior living. It was then that he began to get excited about the possibility of what future assisted living centers could actually look like.
It took him a while, but in 2001, Dean opened his first assisted living community. In 2010, Dean founded Vibrant Life Senior Living with a partner, Rob Cohen. Vibrant Life was born out of the passionate belief that people can live a fulfilling life despite any physical or cognitive limitations they may have. There are now ten Vibrant Life buildings on four campuses throughout Michigan, in Superior Township, Temperance in Monroe County,, Kalamazoo and Durand, all built from the idea that seniors can still make a valuable contribution to life.
The key to vibrant living in a senior setting, Dean explained, is having people develop meaningful relationships along with having daily stimulating activity, that they want to do. This is what is missing in most senior communities. He instills in his staff the notion that their communities are not assisted living facilities, but a place where people are, “living, with assistance”. Even further, “we have evolved into being much more than just a senior community” states Dean, “we are a community of people -residents, staff and families all coming together to create one vibrant community.”
Vibrant Life opened up their newest community, in Superior Township, just east of Ann Arbor and west of Canton, in 2019. However, shortly after ringing in the promise of a new year, Dean would face the biggest challenge of his career. COVID-19 struck hard, going after the world’s most vulnerable citizens. Dean knew he had to do whatever he could to protect not only the residents who were at most risk, but also their families, the Vibrant Life staff and their families.
Vibrant Life began by following strict protocol, practicing intense infection control. No one could enter the center without getting their temperature taken and answering a set of questions related to who they had been in contact with. Following state and federal mandates, no visitors were allowed and as difficult as it was, the residents had to isolate from each other. The state protocol was, and still is, to only test people who were symptomatic. Early on, it was not known that a person could be asymptomatic and still carry the virus.
Dean and the Vibrant Life team firmly believed that everyone in his communities should be tested in order to prevent the spread of the virus. He worked with the health departments in all four counties where Vibrant Life Communities are located (Washtenaw, Monroe, Shiawassee, and Kalamazoo) to try to get testing. Dean then found an Ann Arbor based lab that could provide 100 tests at $110 each. It took weeks, but Vibrant Life was finally able to test each and every resident and most staff in Vibrant Life communities.
“Senior communities, as well as prisons and other communal organizations are the primary place where the virus can spread. Testing everyone in these communities allows us to isolate those who test positive and stop the spread,” said Dean.
Once results came back, COVID-positive units were created in each one of the communities to separate those who were sick from those who tested negative. While before testing, two of the communities had some residents testing positive, since testing and isolation began in mid-March, there have been only three residents test positive, -all asymptomatic -and all have recovered. As of this writing, all of the four Vibrant Life communities are COVID-19 free.
Dean is confident that early testing was the answer to saving the vulnerable lives of the residents in his communities and believes that frequent testing is the key to stopping the spread of COVID-19. He is eager to learn and share his knowledge in an effort to help seniors get through this pandemic. (note post writing: as of May 19, 2020, the federal government is now mandating testing of all residents in nursing homes and testing all staff weekly).
As the pandemic slowly bends its curve, and we begin the long journey back to some sort of normal, Dean cannot wait to get back to playing music for his residents. He already started by recording a “funky” music video entitled, “If You Don’t Get It, You Might Spread It” to try and help young people socially distant. “Music makes all people happy, especially seniors,” states Dean Solden, the unusual, musical senior living guy.
You can find it and more information about Dean Solden and Vibrant Life Senior Living on their website HERE
PHOTO: Dean Solden and the Tic Toc Memory Care Choir Assisted Living Residents
Jen DeGregorio is Director of Communications for The ChadTough Foundation and a regular contributor to WeLoveAnnArbor and WeLoveDexter.