Master’s Graduate Embraces Multidisciplinary, Compassionate COVID-19 Response as Senior Living Executive Director

Shaun Rushforth MS '08, executive director of the Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens in Fresno, California, says the depth and breadth of his USC education aided in responding to the pandemic as well as ideas for "opening anew."

When Shaun Rushforth arrived at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in 2005, he knew one thing for sure. “I wasn’t,” he said, “going to be a long-term care administrator.”

Rushforth grew up in Texas, watching his mother care at home for her mother and two older sisters. “My mom used to joke, ‘If I get one more person in my house, I’m going to have to get a license to do this,’” he said. But at the time, that was the point: his family believed senior living facilities were for those who didn’t have loved ones to care for them.

Today, as the executive director of the Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens continuing care retirement community in Fresno, California, Rushforth has become an evangelist for the same types of facilities he once dismissed. “I don’t think I fully got it,” he said of his younger self. “There’s a lot of misconceptions out there from people who haven’t experienced this first hand.”

Realizing Gerontology’s Importance

Rushforth didn’t originally plan to go into gerontology at all. At Brigham Young University in Utah, he majored in child psychology and considered a career as a pediatrician. Then one day his brother forwarded him an email from USC, where he was in school at the time. The email had some information on a behavioral psychology program, which is why Rushforth suspected his brother forwarded it. But what grabbed his attention instead was a mention of USC’s gerontology school. The very next day, he added a minor in gerontology.

“It was an overnight thing — this is what I’m doing with my life,” he said.  He wasn’t sure what he would do with the degree. He only knew he wanted to work with older adults.

When he enrolled at the Davis School for his master’s degree at 23 years old, the first order of business was finding a place to live. A friend told him about a joint program USC has with Kingsley Manor Retirement Community in Hollywood, where a number of gerontology graduate students receive free room and board at Kingsley in exchange for teaching enrichment programs and interacting with residents. Despite his skepticism about such facilities, the price was right and he soon moved in. The combination of classroom lessons and lived experience turned out to be the best possible education for an aspiring gerontologist, he said. “You go to class and you learn things on a theoretical level,” he said, “and then I was going to Kingsley Manor and I would see the same things on a practical level.”

He also began to realize that his preconceived notions of institutional care may have been wrong. At the time, his mother was still back home taking care of his great aunt, who had dementia. He realized his mother’s health was declining under the strain of the effort. And he wasn’t sure his aunt was receiving better care from his mother than she would from staff trained specifically to deal with elder care and dementia issues.

“Having your loved one in a long term care facility means you get to retain that relationship as a child or a family member,” he said, “and allow the caregiving to be done by professionals.”

A Career in Compassion

Rushforth graduated from USC in 2008 thinking he might still go to medical school. While he considered his options, he took a job at Kingsley. It was supposed to be a “stop gap” measure, he said. Instead, it turned out to be the first step in a career that feels tailor made for him. His journey came full circle in 2016, when, as the director of a for-profit facility, he told his wife he missed Kingsley Manor, which is non-profit and had, he felt, more of a mission-driven nature. The next month, his old Kingsley boss called up and told him the executive director job was available, and asked if he wanted to be considered.

Rushforth served as executive director at Kingsley Manor until late 2020, providing compassionate leadership as the tumultuous early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic turned into months of lockdown. Preventing and treating COVID cases, keeping on top of constantly evolving regulatory changes, and helping residents and their families has required creativity, flexibility, and a deep understanding of many aspects of the aging process. For these skills, the depth and breadth of his USC Leonard Davis School program was invaluable, Rushforth said.

“One day it’s about regulations; the next it’s about helping your residents and your team walk through their emotions,” he said. “It’s never been as interdisciplinary as it is right now. We’ve had to wear so many hats during this pandemic; having a really broad-based education has been helpful.”

The pandemic and resulting lockdowns put mental health and well-being for both residents and staff members in the spotlight. Rushforth said he is open about how therapy has given him important tools to not only improve his own well-being but also to provide better support to residents and team members during stressful, fearful times, instead of simply putting on a brave face for their sake.

“We needed to openly have the conversation about what was affecting us and how we can use our fear for positive things,” he said. He recalled that a staff member at Kingsley Manor later told him, “Thank you for letting me know it was okay to cry.”

Staying True to Values

It wasn’t easy to leave such a “special place” as Kingsley Manor, but Fresno has been a great place for him, his wife and two young children to put down roots, Rushforth said. In addition, the similarly mission-driven environment of the Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens has made him feel at home as well.

Rushforth characterized his previous and current employers as “collaborators, not competitors” and noted that their shared values, including a resident-centered environment, a robust dialogue about mental well-being, and a strong sense of emergency preparedness, played big roles in his decision to accept the executive director position at the Terraces.

As the pandemic shifts into a new phase, with residents and team members receiving vaccines and many facilities welcoming visitors once again, Rushforth said the past year has provided numerous things to think about regarding every aspect of the senior living industry. From crafting longer-term emergency plans to creating quality programming that provides social connection in a safe environment, it further highlights the need for broad, interdisciplinary gerontology education.

“I like to say ‘opening anew’ instead of ‘reopening,’” he said. “‘Reopening’ implies that we’re going back to what was, but the world has fundamentally changed during this last year. We have to open in a new way; everything requires more thinking.”

Additional reporting by Beth Newcomb. Top photo: Kingsley Manor resident Conny Van Dyke and Shaun Rushforth MS ’08 in 2019 (photo by Dario Griffin).