By Jen DeGregorio
If you ever enter a crowded room where Dean Solden is present, you’ll surely remember it. He’s charismatic and energetic, contagiously full of life. If there’s a piano nearby, Dean will start playing a tune that sounds familiar to you, then interject with 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 is he a professional musician, but he also manages and operates assisted living facilities throughout the state of Michigan — and is very, very passionate about it. This vibrant jazz musician happens to be really 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,” Dean said.
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 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 1960s, 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 average lifespan to 70 and beyond. More women started working outside of the home, and their roles began to shift. Many were no longer available to stay home to take care of the elderly.
“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 on 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’s missing in most senior communities. He instills in his staff the notion that their communities are not assisted living facilities, but places where people are “living, with assistance.”
“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 and the Vibrant Life staff and their families.
Vibrant Life began by following a strict protocol, practicing intense infection control. No one could enter the center without getting their temperature taken and answering a set of questions about who they had been in contact with recently. 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 approved. 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,” Dean responded. “Testing everyone in these communities allows us to isolate those who test positive and stop the spread.”
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 two of the communities had some residents test positive (since testing and isolation began in mid-March), only three residents total tested positive. All were asymptomatic and all have recovered. As of this writing, all four Vibrant Life communities are coronavirus-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’s eager to learn and share his knowledge in an effort to help seniors get through this pandemic. On May 19, 2020, the federal government finally mandated that all nursing home residents and staff must be tested weekly.
Dean can’t wait to get back to playing music for his residents. He’s already recorded a “funky” music video entitled “If You Don’t Get It, You Might Spread It” to try and help young people socially distance.
“Music makes all people happy, especially seniors,” stated Dean Solden, the unusual, musical senior living guy.
You can find the video and more information about Dean Solden and Vibrant Life Senior Living on their website, VibrantLifeSeniorLiving.com.
In addition to serving The ChadTough Foundation as the Director of Communications, Jen DeGregorio manages PR/marketing and events for several non-profits across Washtenaw County. She began her career in newspapers in 1995 as a means to cover college expenses. After completing her degree at the University of Michigan-Dearborn in English, she continued to build a career in advertising with the Ann Arbor News.
She was one of the first hires at AnnArbor.com and became an integral part of the management team. In 2012, Jen decided to start her own businesses, with a focus on helping small businesses and non-profits.
She splits her time between her home in Dexter, Mi and an apartment in NYC where her husband has worked for almost a decade.