Paul Klaassen has never been one to be easily dissuaded. Tell him something can’t be done and he’ll likely challenge that assumption with a thought-provoking discussion that ultimately begs the question, “Why not?”
It’s that inquisitive nature and steady push for creative solutions that forced Klaassen to question — and, yes, challenge – America’s approach to senior care. It’s also what has helped make Sunrise Senior Living, the company he co-founded at the ripe old age of 23 with his wife, Terry, the nation’s largest provider of senior living services.
A couple of key turning points prompted the Klaassens to assume the daunting task of changing the face of elder care.
When Terry’s mother required skilled nursing care, she and her family were immediately disillusioned with the stiff setting. It was an experience that led Terry, a business administration graduate from George Mason University, to become a nursing home volunteer in an effort to improve residents’ stays.
Her mother’s brief stint in the facility was a sharp contrast from Paul’s experience with his Dutch grandmothers who lived in residential-style assisted living communities that provided many of the same services as U.S. nursing homes. Klaassen, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Holland, experienced the Dutch care model firsthand during summer visits in that country.
“It was Terry’s volunteer work and my Dutch experience that got us involved. We knew there was nothing about long-term care that required fluorescent lights and institutional finishes. We believed we could build a better long-term care environment, based on the Dutch model, and really make a difference,” said Paul Klaassen, an international finance graduate from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
They officially started in 1981, buying and renovating a boarded-up home in Oakton, VA, and personally caring for 23 residents. Sunrise’s care model caught on and the number of communities quickly multiplied. In fact, a new Sunrise community now opens roughly every 10 days.
At last count, the company operated 420 senior care communities in the U.S., Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. The facilities have a combined capacity for more than 52,000 residents.
While it would have been understandable for even the most enlightened individual to back away from such an enormous challenge, those who really knew Klaassen weren’t surprised by his ambitious undertaking. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue, who met Klaassen while he was still attending Georgetown, knew he was destined for success.
“There was always something special about Paul. He’s extremely bright and efficient, reads everything and has one of the most inquisitive minds. His mind is always going. I think he must sleep only four hours a night,” Donohue said. “His success came from investing early on in something he truly believed in, and investing in quality people who could support his [mission].”
Carole Edelstein, Sunrise’s vice president of program development, echoed that sentiment. “He sets the bar high and that makes you want to push yourself even more. This company has grown so quickly, but the vision remains the same. Everything we do is framed around Sunrise’s “Principles of Service” and what is good for the resident.”
Klaassen’s keen understanding of virtually all sides of the elder care segment, from caregiving and management to operational design to financing, has also made him a force to be reckoned with. “He knows how all aspects fit together and that helps him bring his ideas to [fruition],” noted Victor Regnier, professor of architecture and gerontology at the University of Southern California. “Paul’s very bold. He isn’t one to sit back and copy others’ ideas.”
He’s also known to shift gears in a special, wet direction. A boating enthusiast, he, Terry and their three kids (daughters, ages 23 and 15, and a 21-year-old son) log many hours sailing and scuba diving.
“Boating is my other passion,” he explains.
But it’s not long before he’s back discussing his ideas for the senior care industry.
Indeed, he has firmly bucked the nation’s longstanding notion of long-term care. He contends nursing homes should be for short-term stays, where residents ca