When her community’s new memory care center neared completion last fall, Ellen D’Ardenne and her team hit local physician offices, churches and businesses to help drum up referrals.

Sure, they brought along brochures about the stunning, 20-bed Chaplick Center. But the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies might have been what most helped the facility achieve 85% occupancy by December.

As executive director of The Glebe, a continuing care retirement community near Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, D’Ardenne hasn’t forgotten that food can both connect and comfort people.

A one-time hotel restaurant manager, she was hired to oversee development of The Glebe’s dining services when the community was built in 2005. Since then, she’s relied on the innovation and creativity she honed in food service to build a successful career in healthcare administration.

“Senior living got in my blood. I was intrigued about how everything worked together in supporting residents, especially in transitions,” she says, noting that she went back to college while in her 50s to earn a degree in healthcare administration. 

As dining director, she implemented Dining for Dollars, a then-novel concept that allows residents to spend a monthly allotment where they want — whether in the dining room, on catering or for a casserole to deliver to a friend. 

Now, as an administrator, D’Ardenne continues to look for ways to improve life for residents and staff. One example is the implementation of a 30/40 program, in which select CNAs receive 40 hours’ pay for 30 hours worked with perfect, on-time attendance. The program began in skilled nursing in 2018 and has since expanded to the memory care unit.

In addition to overseeing daily operations and getting creative with human resources in a market challenged by its geography, D’Ardenne eagerly accepted the role of construction manager during the Chaplick project.

Her drive made it evident that she would be best to lead The Glebe when the top spot opened in 2017, says her boss, Jonathan R. Cook, president and CEO of LifeSpire of Virginia.

“Ellen is a very strong leader, very competitive,” he says. “She wants to be the best at what she does, so she’s open to new strategies.”

He says she has a keen sense for understanding what her staff needs, whether it’s training to improve communication or just remembering personal details that make them feel appreciated.

 “She has the ability to balance mission and margin,” Cook says.

D’Ardenne says her commitment to The Glebe is fueled by the community that has grown up around her, from residents who have made requests for features like a saltwater pool to avid gardeners hoping to launch a co-op with Virginia Tech University after the pandemic.

 She keeps herself energized with regular runs before work and a healthy diet that includes plenty of her Mediterranean favorites. Weekends are typically spent at nearby Claytor Lake kayaking or water skiing with her family, which includes children Owen, 33, Alexis, 26, and Dawson, 12, and Dwayne, her husband of 25 years.

When she’s at work, she likes to keep moving — often drifting toward dining areas where she threatens to work the line.

“They remind me I’m not a chef,” she says. “I just get to play one.”

Resume: 1989, Oversees restaurant at Holiday Inn in Tanglewood, VA; 1991, Promoted from food and beverage director to HR manager; 1993, Becomes contract director of food services at Brandon Oaks; 2000, Starts her own high-end food shop; 2002, Becomes director of dining services at Kendal at Lexington; 2005, Joins The Glebe as director of dining services; 2010, Completes licensed administrator’s requirements; 2014, Earns bachelor’s degree in Health Care Administration from Mary Baldwin College; 2017, Appointed executive director; 2019, Oversees construction of $5 million Chaplick Center