August 5, 2012 in Features

Aegis Living CEO puts seniors on pedestal

By The Spokesman-Review
Tony Wadden photo

The small movie theater looks like a neighborhood theater from the 1940s.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Coming up

Tuesday in Today: Dwayne Clark’s innovations in Aegis memory care units, including edible plants in the garden.

Dwayne Clark, CEO and founder of Aegis Living, is putting a man cave in his newest assisted living community near downtown Seattle.

“It has a Wall Street ticker, and multiple televisions for sports,” he said. “A poker table, a bar, wine taps, beer taps, dart board. It’s like the American Legion on steroids.”

Don’t tell Clark that 80-something men might be too old for man caves.

“This is where I really get mad at my industry. For some reason, they make the elderly alien – well you’re old, you don’t have that need.”

Clark’s “industry” is upscale assisted-living residences. The former Gonzaga University student owns 28 facilities in Washington, California and Nevada; six more are in development.

Clark, who grew up in Lewiston and Walla Walla, is known as a maverick in his profession. Man caves are the least of it.

“Dwayne is one of the most colorful people I have ever met,” said David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association. “He’s a real innovator who has surrounded himself with great people.”

Aegis of Bellevue, which opened in 2010, looks more like a boutique hotel than an assisted living facility. Walk into the three-story building, and a concierge greets you.

“In the first 90 feet (of the entrance), 90 percent of your impression is made up 90 percent of the time,” Clark explained.

Clark, 53, sports a deep tan. He’s 30 pounds lighter than a year ago, thanks to a fitness competition with Marc Nowak, Aegis of Bellevue’s executive director.

As the tour begins, Nowak hands you ginger-spiced hot tea, available in the lobby for residents and guests, because ginger calms jittery stomachs and nerves.

The small movie theater on the first floor looks like a neighborhood theater from the 1940s. Clark told his staff: “Let’s all read the ‘Greatest Generation’ and use it for icons and art.” They did.

Clark’s parents were both members of the Greatest Generation.

His mother, Colleen, a British citizen who grew up in India, married a soldier stationed in India during World War II. They moved to his hometown, Kennewick, and the couple had four children together.

Clark was the youngest. He remembers a home marked by his father’s violence and absenteeism. When Clark was in second grade, his mother divorced and settled in Lewiston.

As Clark’s older siblings left the nest, he and his mother became two against the world. She worked low-wage jobs as a cook, and he assumed man-of-the-house responsibilities. When Clark was 11, his beloved grandmother ended up in a Lewiston nursing home.

In Clark’s book, “My Mother, My Son” – published this year – he writes: “Many residents were physically bound to their beds. Some cried softly while others wailed at the top of their lungs, backs arching off their mattresses. The most horrific were those that lay silent, staring out the door. I’d catch their stares and see confusion or panic in their eyes, and I’d quickly look away … I have no doubt that my exposure to these residents had a profound effect on me.”

Back to the present, where Clark and Nowak show off the dining room at Aegis of Bellevue. It features a theater kitchen, complete with pizza oven. Food, as sustenance and metaphor, is important to Clark.

When Clark started skipping a lot of high school in Lewiston, his mother relocated to Walla Walla so Clark could attend DeSales, a Catholic high school. One week, down to her last $5, Clark’s mother “borrowed” a bag of potatoes from the Elks Club where she worked. Clark and his mom subsisted on potato soup for a week.

The memory lives on in a creative way in Clark’s company, which employs 2,000 people. Aegis’ Potato Soup Foundation helps employees with financial emergencies. In the past decade, Aegis Living has garnered five “best companies to work for” honors from Washington CEO magazine and has twice been a finalist in Puget Sound Business Journal’s best workplace award.

Clark said: “You’re not born a CEO. It’s a ladder. It’s incumbent on me as a CEO to (explain) the rungs. That’s why I talk about being a poor kid.”

In a presentation Clark gives in businesses and universities, he shows a slide of the “typical CEO.”

His description: “Went to Harvard, got undergrad in economics, got MBA at Stanford, married Buffy, Rotary member.”

Then he describes the typical entry level: “Finished 10th grade. Rotten credit. Never been to more than three states. Don’t own a passport.”

“Geez,” Clark said. “These two worlds don’t look like they blend. You have to build the bridge.”

After the tour, lunch – beef soup, grilled salmon on organic lettuce, fresh berries for dessert – is served in the Aegis of Bellevue private dining room.

Clark traces his life now to a mother who believed he walked on water and a father who deserted the family.

“Dr. Wayne Dyer (self-help author) is a good friend,” Clark said. “He said one time, ‘I had a great father.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s BS. I know your father was a drunk, and he left you in an orphanage.’ He said, ‘He taught me parenting in reverse.’ ”

Clark hadn’t talked to his own dad in a decade when his wife encouraged him to seek him out.

“I had a conversation with him about how disappointing he was. He said, ‘I did the best I could. Your mom didn’t want me around.’ ”

Clark doesn’t harbor a grudge against his father, now deceased. “I look for the meaning in things that happened and ask: ‘How did that help me?’ ”

His mother depended on him to pay bills. He started driving at 12, illegally, so he could run errands for her.

Clark said, “I was also dry walling the house and rototilling the garden. It didn’t kill me. It made me ambitious. I didn’t want to rototill a garden for the next 50 years of my life.”

Although Clark attended both Chaminade University in Hawaii and Gonzaga, he doesn’t have a degree.

“When I became a CEO, my mom said, ‘If only you had graduated and become a lawyer.’ I said ‘Mom, my lawyers make like 20 percent of what I do.’ ”

Aegis facilities are not inexpensive. The company, with $1 billion in real-estate assets, accepts only private-pay residents. It costs between $90 and $300 a day to live in an Aegis residence, and the cost includes meals, care and most services.

Those who lose their memories transition into Aegis memory care units, and Aegis works with hospice organizations so many residents die in their Aegis units, as did Colleen Clark.

Colleen Clark showed subtle signs of Alzheimer’s for four years before the family shed its denial. They worried when she began drinking too much (sometimes an early sign of dementia) but blamed her fast-drinking boyfriends.

She lived with daughter Edweena Skinner in Post Falls. Skinner, who now lives on Spokane’s South Hill, said the family should have moved their mother into an Aegis facility two years earlier than they did.

“But I had always promised her I’d never place her,” Skinner said.

Colleen Clark lived in a facility owned by her son, the CEO. Skinner’s son, Derrick, ran the place. Skinner and her other grown children and grandchildren visited all the time.

Yet the family was not spared the guilt and sadness associated with placing a parent in a facility.

Colleen was 87 when she died Oct. 26, 2010.

“The moment I had feared since I was a little boy was finally upon me,” Clark writes in his book. “I was sobbing, holding her head in my hands as I lowered my cheek next to hers and whispered: ‘Mom, I know you’re leaving. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.’ ”

Clark’s latest facility – six-stories, 102 assisted living and memory units – is under construction between Capitol Hill and Madison Park east of downtown Seattle. Its design seems like creative grief work, a talisman against guilt and sadness.

Clark has recreated the feel of the Madison neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s; photos, artifacts and design elements will bring to life touchstones from the residents’ childhoods, such as the neighborhood bakery, auto shop and other storefronts.

And residents can eat at “Collu’s Cafe” – a tribute to his mother, whose mantra was “I only eat tasty food.”

Collu’s Cafe will be designed like a 1950s diner.

“We’ll have a fat-food menu,” Clark said. “The biggest pies. The Reubens and the Monte Cristos. Why not eat? At the end of the day, we should never lose sight of who we have been.”

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