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Innovation in programs and responsiveness to community needs are priorities for Michelle Haefner, who recently became the president and chief executive officer of Bethesda Health and Housing. The organization serves 600-some older adults each day across a continuum of care that ranges from skilled nursing to housing, home health care and wellness. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

New CEO takes over Bethesda

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WILLMAR — When Michelle Haefner envisions the future of services for aging adults, she sees opportunities to innovate, make use of technology and design programs that respond to what clients and caregivers need and want.

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“The focus is on the person, the individual, and what does that person need. Our goal is to meet those needs and prepare for the future,” she said.

Haefner was recently named the chief executive officer of Bethesda Health and Housing. She had been the interim CEO since September, when longtime CEO Doug Dewane retired.

She has taken the helm of one of the region’s largest and most diverse nonprofit providers of services for older adults.

Bethesda operates two long-term care facilities with 248 beds, three senior housing facilities with 151 units, a home health care service, rehabilitation therapy and an adult day care service. More recently, its mission has branched out to include a wellness center and a magnet program for Parkinson’s disease.

The organization’s size, both in number of people served and workforce size, creates a “great responsibility to set the standard for excellence,” said Larry Knutson, chairman of the Bethesda board.

“Michelle has demonstrated a deep personal commitment to our mission, has shown herself to be a steady source of wisdom in times of change and has already begun to prove herself as an effective leader during her service as interim president and CEO,” Knutson said. “Michelle moves into this role with the board’s unanimous support.”

 Haefner, who joined Bethesda in 2005 as chief operating officer, said she intends to build on the organization’s legacy and position it to meet the future needs of an aging population.

“We have many innovative and diverse programs at Bethesda,” she said. “I envision Bethesda continuing to deliver those services. I see more use of technology, more community-based services, more emphasis on active lifestyles.”

Traditional services such as long-term skilled care will continue to be needed, but the definition of aging is changing and Bethesda is evolving in response, Haefner said.

“A common goal as we age is to maintain as much independence as possible and the dynamics are shifting as to when and how older adults receive care,” she said. “Emerging trends include maintaining independence through home- and community-based services, wellness programming, and innovation and technology.”

That the public wants more services and more choices was demonstrated when Bethesda opened its wellness center, the first in the region with ergonomically tailored fitness equipment and a heated swimming pool catering exclusively to middle-aged and older adults.

Leaders at Bethesda thought the new Club Bethesda would be successful if 300 people bought memberships, Haefner said. Instead, more than 600 people signed up, she said. “Parking is our main problem now.”

Negative stereotypes persist about aging, and it remains important to advocate for the older generation at the state and national policy level, she said.

A key sign of progress is the increasing emphasis on helping older adults live well regardless of the physical or mental limitations they may face, Haefner said.

“We’d like to see every individual live life to the fullest and live a purposeful life,” she said. With the right array of services, they can “get back to doing things they enjoy.”

One of her most immediate challenges is the design of a new long-term care facility to replace the aging Bethesda Heritage Center.

Supporting family caregivers and ensuring that Bethesda has an adequate, well-trained workforce are also among her priorities.

The field of senior services is a good place to be, Haefner said. “When you come to work each day, you can really make a difference in people’s lives. It’s more than just a job. I think that’s where a lot of the passion comes from for this work. It is very rewarding and very fulfilling.”

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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