Barbara A. Doyle still remembers an exchange with her high school guidance counselor in Chicago. “He asked, ‘What are you going to do? You have to be a teacher or a nurse.’ And I said, ‘I want to be president of the American Red Cross.’”
“I didn’t have that opportunity until Covid hit – now my dream has been fulfilled,” Doyle declared during a recent interview in her office. “What I wanted was the ability to make quick decisions with impact.”
Doyle has never run the Red Cross. But her 41 years as the first and only chief executive officer of Carleton-Willard Village on Old Billerica Road, the landmark continuing care community, provided at least as much gratification.
“It has been wonderful,” said Doyle, who is scheduled to retire on May 5. “As I said to many residents, staff, and trustees, ‘It’s not a job. It’s not a career. It’s my life’s work. And it’s a blessing.’”
As she prepares for her departure, Doyle said, “I’m at the stage right now where it’s part past, present, and future, all going around. Forty-one years is a long time, and it’s not just health care; it’s many businesses. I feel very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Carleton-Willard Village was the first multi-level residential healthcare facility in the state, with independent and assisted living, rehabilitation, full nursing care and memory care on the same campus.
Doyle arrived there on May 10, 1982, leaving the administrator post at New England Deaconess at Rivercrest in Concord. Construction was not yet complete. Neither was the operating plan.
“There had been a board committee that had worked on the construction part, but not the operating part,” she remembered. “When I arrived, we had no marketing strategy for the 179 licensed beds. And there was one employee.”
Fortunately, there was a surplus of workers in the region.
“Not everybody we hired stayed, but we got the staff on board,” she said.
Residents were integrated from the former Llewsac Lodge, located on the site, as well as from the Elizabeth Carleton Home in Boston. “That was how we began, and since then, I don’t think there has been a year when there hasn’t been some construction or renovation.”
The most recent addition was the 12-unit Arlington Court, near the corner of Old Billerica and Burlington Roads. “We broke ground on March 4, 2020,” 11 days before the Covid-19 state lockdown. “But since it was isolated, we got permitted. And I had everything before the supply chain dried up.”
The addition ended up opening only three months behind schedule.
Expansion and change defined the facilities and programs as the years passed. But for Doyle and Carleton-Willard Village, “The most significant change, and the biggest challenge, was Covid, coupled with the workforce shortage.” She regarded them as tests for her management. “I remember going home and I said, ‘There’s no way I’m not going to see this through.’”
Now “The worst is behind us, and we’ve learned a lot. The residents have been incredible with their support. Staffing issues are not going to go away for quite a while – hospitals are dealing with the same issues.”
The biggest remaining deficit is dining room waitstaff, Doyle said. For more than a year during the pandemic, the dining room was closed. Now Carleton-Willard is finding it much harder to restore its pool of students, particularly for the evening meal. It’s especially tough because of the no-tipping policy, Doyle acknowledged.
“So, we are working with a combination of waitstaff, when we have them, and a buffet. And I’ve never seen the residents happier with a buffet,” she said, adding – apparently forgetting her impending retirement for a moment – “We’ll see what happens this summer.”
“By choice and by personality, I have been involved,” Doyle affirmed. “I have known every single resident – that is not the norm for the CEO role. I meet every new resident coming in – and every one for the last three years has had a mask on. We take pictures and I have a book of them, and that way I can identify.”
The complex continues to incrementally return to pre-pandemic conditions. Face coverings are now optional for residents, though still mandatory for visitors and staff. “We basically are back to where we were as far as community services. You have to count the small blessings,” Doyle said. “On Monday, we held our first in-person memorial service since March of 2020.”
“Although it was challenging and exhausting, we are in a very positive position and appreciative more of what we do,” Doyle asserted. “And I think family members are, too. All in all, I feel very proud of our accomplishments.”
Soon the institution will recognize 54 employees at a service awards event. “We have the loyalty and, to a certain extent, the appreciation of our mission and our steadfast ability to get through Covid,” Doyle said. That staff retention “is really a very positive aspect for our residents: the security and safety of being well-taken-care-of. They are a pretty happy lot right now.”
Doyle noted that the Carleton Willard at Home service “was able to continue to do well because of our gourmet-to-go for people who couldn’t get to the store.” The program offers food deliveries, transportation, and other services to older area residents living at home.
“Our waitlist is continuing to grow, primarily because families saw the impact of Covid and their parents’ struggling to stay home. Now they know this is the right decision and the right time.”
Over the past four decades, demographics have changed in the country and at Carleton Willard.
“People are living longer, we are seeing more couples, and with that comes more men. And that has been a big plus,” Doyle observed. She noted that the facility doesn’t do marketing, and “that’s another positive.”
There is a “significant number of legacies” – newcomers who are relatives of past residents, occasionally parents-children. “Kids would visit their parents and say, ‘I’m never coming here.’ And years later I say to them, ‘I knew you’d be back.’”
“I just feel that I have had so much to benefit and learn from other generations,” she explained, noting that “I’m a second-generation nursing-home administrator. My mother was the first female licensed administrator in Illinois when I was growing up. I just grew up loving older people and have been able to accept life and death and count my blessings.”
Changing technology has been a career constant. Several years ago, she related, one of the earliest improvements was the installation of a call system attached to the refrigerators of all independent living units. The alarm sounds if a day goes by without the door opening and “we check on those people. There are a lot of little things like that part of our strategic plan.”
“We are just in the finishing stages of electronic medical records and that’s huge,” Doyle said. “We were neck deep in just fighting with Covid. Now there are many new opportunities that the organization is going to be able to look at.”
“I love this town,” Doyle declared, citing residents who have relocated to Carleton-Willard, employees who live in Bedford, or municipal departments that have been involved over the years. She also lauded Carleton-Willard’s close relations with three area hospitals: Emerson, Lahey, and Mount Auburn. “They all have incredible respect for what we do here.”
Doyle didn’t want to reveal her age – “I’m younger than the residents,” she said.
She recently was recognized with a distinguished service award by Leading Age, a 5,000-member organization of non-profit providers of programs and services to older adults. Doyle has served on the organization’s national board and led the Massachusetts chapter, two times each. Leading Age “at the state and national level has made a huge impact through quality of care for seniors.”
Doyle stressed that “it’s important to give the new CEO his opportunity.” He is scheduled to begin on April 24.
Meanwhile, she said she and her husband are looking forward to the next chapter. “Ultimately, I would like to get involved in volunteer work and focus on not-for-profit governance. My work has been not-for-profit and will remain that way,” she said, adding, “But not right away. First there’s travel. And pickleball.”