Jay Zimmer grew up in a three-story house in Newark with his grandparents living upstairs. While studying social work at Ramapo College, he found that he much preferred his internship doing outreach at a senior center to his internships in a drug rehabilitation facility and at a county welfare office.

When he graduated in 1974 he decided to stick with seniors because, “I really liked the population.” His first job was with the Ocean County Office on Aging as director of outreach services. Today, after a career that has spanned the healthcare industry, he is executive director of PHS Senior Living at Meadow Lakes, a continuing care retirement community of about 400 residents in East Windsor.

Zimmer will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s annual Educator’s Institute, “Exploring Careers in Healthcare.” The program, running from Tuesday through Thursday, June 23 through 25, is offered free of charge to all educators, including K-12 teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors.

The goal of the institute is to help educators better guide their students in developing the skills they will need to meet workplace demands, and it includes site visits to Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center at Hamilton, Meadow Lakes Senior Living, and SERV Behavioral Health System Inc. Attendees are eligible for 15 professional development hours. For more information or to register, contact Deborah Kilmer at 609-924-1776, ext. 104, or deb@princetonchamber.org.

Continuing-care retirement communities bring together people who might otherwise have grown increasingly isolated. Research studies in the United States and Australia, says Zimmer, have found increasingly strong evidence that being part of a community is associated with a decreased incidence of ailments like heart disease and serious depression among seniors. “The advantage of living in a place like Meadow Lakes where people can be as independent as they want but also participate in communal activities,” says Zimmer, “is that it makes for an overall healthier individual.”

The continuing-care industry is growing but is starting to look a little different as baby boomers begin to retire. Its biggest challenge, says Zimmer, will be figuring out what kind of living environment they require and whether the model as it exists will serve them well. “People are living longer, healthier, and are a lot more active,” he says, “and the industry will have to respond to that profile.”

Meadow Lakes, for instance, has already introduced some innovation in its health and fitness facility, adding a spa-like space to what had been only a pool and fitness center. Its dining service has also gotten more creative. “It is a lot healthier, with more choice,” says Zimmer. “It has moved far away from meat loaf and mashed potatoes.” He then details his dinner of the previous evening, one of eight or ten specials: a wheat berry salad with roasted peppers and spinach, poached salmon, and glazed carrots. “It’s like eating in a 4-star restaurant,” he says.

Retirement communities are also overcoming misconceptions about what kinds of programs that seniors like, says Zimmer. He adds that Meadow Lakes does not offer Bingo games and in fact its residents are more likely to participate in a lecture given by a Princeton professor.

As more and more baby boomers are approaching or passing the traditional retirement age of 65, employment opportunities are opening up in all phases of aging and healthcare. But already, says Zimmer, the healthcare system is facing serious challenges related to staffing:

Young and old. Younger people are not interested in the field of aging. “The field isn’t as sexy as working in Wall Street,” says Zimmer. One response by PHS Senior Living is a five-year-old internship program, supported by the company’s foundation. The program supports 20 to 25 college students who, depending on their interests, are assigned either to a particular retirement community or to a department at the corporate offices. Some have a background in social work and others in business. “We’ve had quite few people who have continued and stayed in the field, some hired by us,” says Zimmer.

Help wanted. Shortages exist in essential medical personnel. In the last decade or so medical schools have begun to offer residency training in geriatric medicine, but there is still a considerable shortage of physicians board certified in geriatrics. The problem, suggests Zimmer, is salary levels in the field. The reimbursement for a doctor who finishes a first residency in internal medicine then an additional year fellowship in geriatrics is so low that they almost can’t afford to practice.

Nurses are also in short supply, both in hospitals and continuing-care communities, even though many people are interested in the profession. The problem is that it is difficult to find people willing and able to teach in nursing schools, he says.

For nurses looking for positions, Zimmer suggests that continuing-care communities offer some advantages over hospitals. “The big advantage is that there is a continuity of care within a community like this,” he says. “Nurses get to know patients over a long period of time, as opposed to a hospital setting where people are in and out and nurses never get to build relationships and get to know patients.” “We also offer a lot of stability, as well as comparability in terms of salary and benefits, and in some cases we’re even better.” Then he adds, “But it takes a special person — you have to like old people.”

Shortages in rehabilitative medicine. “Advancements in hip and knee replacements and medicine in general have helped to keep people going for a lot longer,” says Zimmer. “But just as there is a shortage in the nursing area, there are shortages in the physical, occupational, and speech therapy areas as well.” So far there are not many programs out there either, he adds.

Meadow Lakes itself is growing, with 60 new apartments just opening, and some communities have long waiting lists. “The industry is expanding and the need for qualified employees is always going to be there,” says Zimmer. “It runs the gamut — not only healthcare, but good business managers, purchasing agents, and dining and housekeeping staff.” And the certified nursing aides and home health aide business is also growing tremendously, he adds.

Zimmer’s father was in the insurance business and his mother was an accountant. After Zimmer’s stint as director of outreach services at the Ocean County Office on Aging, where he helped integrate services for the homebound elderly, Zimmer served as director of the office for several years.

He then worked in hospital administration for about 14 years, first at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Camden and then with the AtlantiCare Health System in Atlantic City. In 1990 he got an MBA from City University of New York’s Baruch College.

At UMDNJ Zimmer wrote the school’s first successful grant for establishing a medical training program in geriatrics and later managing that grant. For seven years he worked in his own healthcare consulting firm, HR Solutions, which focused primarily on rehabilitation facilities. After selling that company in 2004, the sales agreement prevented him from starting a similar business, so for two-and-a-half years he was chief operating officer at the New Southwest Veterinary Management Group in Tucson.

Not only did Zimmer come to his current position with lots of experience in hospital management, he also had some hands-on hospital experience. During college he worked as a respiratory therapist. Zimmer believes this gave him a certain perspective that the crop of MBAs who started running hospitals in the late 1980s and ‘90s do not have.

“I have always thought that one of the things missing from the healthcare industry is that people who get into management positions don’t necessarily have that bedside experience,” says Zimmer. “It gives you the huge advantage of understanding how difficult it is to work at a bedside and how complicated the healthcare system is.”

The problem with the business guys was that some of their concepts just didn’t work. “They don’t understand patient care,” says Zimmer. Often, for example, they would send home sick patients too early.

“They had a mandate to get people out in three or four days,” says Zimmer, “and the kind of stress that would place on care providers, nurses, and therapists was unbelievable. The outcome was that you would have people being discharged and then returned to the hospital because they weren’t treated adequately the first time, and there’s still lot of that going on.”

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