After years of experience across the spectrum of nonprofit, private and public health care, she found her niche in homes for the aged.
Along the way, she also discovered how integral spiritual well-being and emotional health are to physical health.
As owner of Elder Care Management Consultants PC, a company she founded in 1991, Harrison works with assisted living homes throughout Michigan on achieving compliance with regulatory standards, implementing quality improvement strategies and developing new programs.
Additionally, since 1999 she has been administrator of Rose Garden Homes, a 46-bed licensed home for the aged in Grandville.
Harrison, who has a master’s degree in nursing, recalls that at the outset of her career her major goal was “not to work in a hospital.”
“I liked the bigger picture of health care in general. So public health and home health care seemed to be more up my alley,” she explained. “I’m more of a practical nurse than a technical nurse.”
She began her career as a staff nurse at Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor, moved on to become director of nursing at Twilight Acres Nursing Home in Eugene, Ore., and then served a couple of years as a public health nurse for the Lane County Health Department in Eugene.
In 1974 she took the position of nursing staff supervisor at Visiting Nurse Services of Western Michigan and went on to serve as its director.
She was later promoted to vice president of clinical services, overseeing eight supervisors and 60 nurses, therapists and paraprofessionals who together provided 60,000 home visits to some 3,000 patients annually.
As vice president of clinical services, she helped form the organization’s extra care private duty agency and helped set up its hospice program.
“I learned almost everything I know about management there,” she added.
It was during her 17 years with Visiting Nurse Services that Harrison founded Elder Care Management Consultants.
“I’ve always loved older people,” she said. “In my early days I worked in two or three different nursing homes. I knew there was a better way to run them.”
Her business originally involved assisting home care agencies in developing hospice programs and business expansion plans, with the emphasis on quality care for older adults, Harrison said.
In 1993, Harrison hired on as program director of Gerontology Network, where she managed four geriatric community mental health programs and a multi-disciplinary staff of 21.
That led to the position of Continuous Quality Improvement accreditation manager. But after being laid off due to funding cuts, she began focusing more on consulting.
“I decided I wanted to be my own boss in terms of being in charge of what I can do and what I can’t do instead of relying on the whims of government funding agencies,” she said. “I decided to take a leap of faith.”
During that interim, she helped Olds Manor get back on track in terms of state compliance. In doing so, she made connections with state surveying staff and learned all about home for the aged regulations.
In fact, in 1996 she became the first monitor of homes for the aged to be approved by the state to assist homes that were not in compliance.
“It was just a natural. I thought, ‘If this one home is in trouble, maybe there are other homes that need help,’” Harrison said. “So I sent out some marketing letters and one by one started getting referrals.
“After two or three years, some homes began calling me, not because they were in trouble, but because they wanted to have a quality improvement program; so that was really exciting.”
She said Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) helped her “tremendously” in getting her business off the ground.
“They really helped me understand what a business plan is and how the marketing and financial and operational plans all have to mesh.
“Once I understood that for my own business, I could teach that to other assisted living homes. That was just a wonderful little side effect of that whole thing.”
In 1999, Harrison received parish nurse training and developed a parish nurse position at First Park Church, serving the congregation as health educator and advocate, personal health counselor and referral agent.
It was there, she said, that she got to experience “what holistic care feels like.”
Also in 1999, the owners of Rose Garden Homes contracted with her to assess management and operation of the home.
“The more I was here, the more I thought, ‘This is the perfect place to use as a model home.’” So she told the owners she would be open to becoming the home’s new administrator.
“They accepted my offer because I have this vision of what a model, assisted living home can be — and I continue to refine it.”
As Harrison explains it, a model home feels like home; it retains people’s independence while offering them the companionship and assistance they may need.
A model home caters not only to residents’ physical needs but to their spiritual and emotional needs, as well. Furthermore, a model home values and works to retain its regular staff, she stressed.
“You can’t develop relationships and true caring if you have constant turnover in staff.”
The state’s 180 assisted living homes for the aged are all unique in that they reflect their own communities, she said.
Many of the residents of Rose Garden Home, in fact, previously lived in the surrounding neighborhood.
“It’s just like a little neighborhood here,” Harrison said. “It’s the culture of this whole southwestern area that makes them feel so comfortable.”
Home health care is popular today, but Harrison believes some people are just not meant to stay home alone. Since coming to Rose Garden, she’s come to believe even more that assisted living is an undersold option for older adults.
She is actively involved with the Alliance for Health’s nursing advisory council, dealing specifically with the nursing shortage issue.
She encourages young people to pursue nursing as a career, particularly geriatric nursing.