Scientific studies continue to emerge on ageing, with researchers discovering that how we feel about getting older really makes a difference. According to one study, if we think about getting older in terms of decline or disability, our health will likely suffer. However, if we choose to see ageing as a new opportunity, our bodies are likely to respond positively. This concept is one Brightwater Care Group CEO Jennifer Lawrence firmly believes in, and it’s a philosophy she lives and works by every day.
“Unfortunately, I can’t claim the idea as my own, but people in our circles are now talking about the concept of ‘elderhood’. You have childhood, adolescence, adulthood and then, rather than talking about ageing in a negative way, they talk about elderhood. It normalises the fact that we are all getting older, and it’s changing the language around aged care,” Jennifer explains. “If there’s a legacy I’d like to leave, it’s that I started a conversation around the fact that ageing is just one part of everybody’s life. It’s not the end of your life; it’s just the next step after adulthood.”
After cutting her teeth in medical science and private pathology, Jennifer decided in 2003 to follow her passion for creating solutions for people who need them, making the switch to the not-for-profit sector at Brightwater Care Group. For 13 years, she worked as the General Manager of Care Operations and then General Manager of Disability, Research and Risk under the guidance of her mentor, friend and former boss, Dr Penny Flett.
“Of all the wonderful advice Penny gave me, two pieces stand out. She used to say that everyone you meet in your life has something important to say – whether they’re a client, staff member, provider or competitor. You should never discount anyone, because they each have a voice,” Jennifer explains. “The other is that although CEOs have excellent ideas from time to time, our job is to start the conversation and then have the patience to let that conversation crystallise into action.”
Backed by Penny’s mentorship and 15 years in the business, Jennifer took over as CEO in March 2016 with a clear vision for the future. “The biggest change I’ve seen since I’ve been at Brightwater is that the organisation has morphed into what is quite a powerful commercial entity, with a clear focus on strategy and a clear eye on sustainability and innovation,” Jennifer says. “We’re more than a transactional care provider; we’re a contemporary care business that can hold our head high among the best commercial businesses in Australia – and a large part of our modern offering is in disability and brain injury rehabilitation.”
“We’re more than a transactional care provider.”
Brightwater Care Group has provided care services to Western Australians for almost 120 years, helping people of all ages to live a better quality of life. The not-for-profit organisation’s services are extensive, from short- and long-term residential accommodation and rehabilitation services to assistance-at-home services, providing specialised support care for people living with disabilities, dementia, acquired brain injuries and even Huntington’s disease.
With 27 locations and a turnover of A$140 million, Brightwater covers the full spectrum of services from retirement living to nursing care. It also assists young people with brain injuries and provides rehabilitation with assisted living at home.
Making future brighter and better
One of Jennifer’s first acts as CEO was to refocus the company on its mission. “We have around 2,100 employees. I wanted to ensure that everyone knew how they contribute to our mission, and I wanted to see how they spoke about our culture,” says Jennifer. “An internal consulting exercise revealed a strong, vibrant culture that hinges on our belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to be their best self and live their best life.
We’ve been around for 117 years, so we have that level of care and respect that you would expect from an established not-for-profit – not only for the people we support, but also for the people with whom we work.”
Government reforms continue to push funding towards a consumer-directed care model. “The real challenge for disability and aged-care organisations like Brightwater is to transform our business model so it takes advantage of these new reforms,” Jennifer explains. “This is difficult because the people that work here do it because they love providing care for people in need, so their skill set isn’t based on understanding where the dollars and cents come from. What we have to do now is bring a level of transparency and commercialism to what we charge for and what we don’t.”
The Australian population is rapidly ageing, with the proportion of people aged 65 years and over continuing to increase over the past century – forcing aged-care organisations to adapt to the changing needs of future generations. “In the next 40 years, the number of people over the age of 85 is set to quadruple, meaning there will be fewer people paying taxes and less money to support the disabled and ageing population,” explains Jennifer. “Therefore, we have to position ourselves to create innovative and sustainable ways of providing services going into the future, including getting more staff to help with an increasing number of clients.”
Through its Brightwater Research Centre, which Jennifer established, the organisation aims to keep innovating, looking for new ways to support and enrich the lives of its clients and residents.
Vision for success
Jennifer’s vision is to continue to develop Brightwater into an evidence-based organisation that makes sensible and informed decisions about what it does and doesn’t do. “Our Research Centre continues to attract significant funding through universities, organisations and local governments, and this means that when we make decisions in the business, we’re able to do it based on our own hard evidence,” she says.
“Everyone should be given the opportunity to be their best self and live their best life.”
With her extensive background in medical science, Jennifer is a staunch advocate for change and innovation in the aged-care and disability sectors – particularly when it comes to technology. “As we enter a far more competitive environment, we’ve been doing a lot of research to understand our competitive advantage,” she says. “We have a very clear, focused strategy in the short-term – and it has to be short-term because of all the disruptions this industry is experiencing – to create a customer-driven service culture within the organisation that’s also going to be relevant for clients of the future.”
This strategy involves maximising Brightwater’s IT systems, training its staff in consumer-directed care, and learning from global players within the industry. “Although we’re based only in Western Australia at present, some services, such as our brain injury rehabilitation practices, are internationally renowned,” Jennifer says. “So, we’re looking at how we leverage that in the long-term to extend our influence and support more people.”
Jennifer measures success not by something as tangible as money but by the outcomes she achieves for her clients and the difference Brightwater makes in people’s lives. “I leave every Friday to go visit our sites and talk to staff,” she says. “I’ll sit down for a chat with a client over a cup of tea, and I’m often moved to tears – happy tears – by the stories I hear. We do wonderful things, and we have caring, passionate staff, and these visits remind me that we do a really important job: we enable people who are getting older or who might have a disability to get on and live their best life.”