Larissa Stepanians was supposed to be the doctor in the family. So when she told her mother that she wanted instead to go into gerontology, her mom was not happy. Her response “was like, ‘Why would you do this when you have such a bright future?’” said Stepanians, now the chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Jewish Home.
Raised by her grandparents while her single mother worked, Stepanians always felt at home around older people. She took a job in high school at a local nursing facility, the Keiro Retirement Home in Boyle Heights (since 2016 under the ownership of Pacifica Senior Living, and renamed Sakura Gardens of Los Angeles). When she got there, something just clicked. “I was very comfortable on the grounds of that nursing home,” she said.
Still, she started college at USC planning to be a doctor. Then she happened to sign up for a gerontology course taught by Associate Professor John Walsh, and “I fell in love with it,” she said. She ended up adding a gerontology minor to her biology major, working at the gerontology school, and eventually, enrolling there as a master’s student. She graduated with a Master of Science in Gerontology degree in 2001.
“I found compassion in the aging process,” she said. “I would enjoy that I could sit with someone and, in the moment that they were having challenges with aging, I could make a difference.”
Remembering her time at the Keiro home, she knew she wanted to work in nursing homes, and landed right after graduate school at Country Villa Health Services. Since that time, Stepanians has worked as both a senior living administrator and as a consultant to families trying to map out a path forward for an elderly relative. It was in this second role that, she said, her USC degree was particularly useful.
“Immediately, it gave me credibility,” she said. “People trusted in the program, and the results from the program.”
Today, nearly two decades out of graduate school, Stepanians is the Chief Operating Officer of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, a senior living facility in Reseda, Calif. The Home serves nearly 5,000 seniors every year, with services ranging from skilled nursing to independent apartment living to a number of daycare options. In addition, it runs its own nursing school. Stepanians said she’s particularly proud of the many ways the organization wraps its arms around the senior community and provides care at many levels, and in different ways. “There’s a moment of awe, where you step back and look at that, and you realize we can accomplish all of this,” she said.
She loves that she still wakes up every day “with this feeling that I’m going to make a difference.” And as for her mother, she’s come around. She recognizes the impact her daughter can have in the healthcare field, without the demands that many physicians have these days to see up to two dozen patients in a day. “She sees the comparison to our family and friends who are physicians, and what they have to deal with,” she said. Now, when she talks about her daughter’s work, Stepanians said, “she just smiles.”
Top: Los Angeles Jewish Home resident Lorraine Beckenstein with Larissa Stepanians MS ’01. Photo by Dario Griffin.