Karim Kassam, Optima Living
On Optima's values, knowledge partnerships, and technological breakthroughs
In our Inspiring Leaders Series, we interview visionaries driven by a passion for excellence that’s manifest in Canada’s most innovative retirement communities.
Thought leadership in action at Optima Living
"The values of our grandmothers and grandparents were critical to our upbringing. In many ways, our grandparents raised us. [That] led us to think about, 'How would we sustain the legacy of our immigrant grandparents?' In terms of our way of giving back and demonstrating gratitude to their efforts from moving to a new country, to helping us settle and to really sharing with us the values of living one's life through the ethos of ethics... that concept, that North Star, would be fundamental for us."
As co-founder of Optima Senior Living and board member of the British Columbia Seniors’ Living Association, Karim Kassam exemplifies senior living thought leadership. Optima Senior Living communities are found across Alberta and British Columbia, founded on personal principles that are deeply felt by both Mr. Kassam and his co-founder Farid Damji. Here, he articulates how those principles have informed the growth of the company thus far, and continue to provide the basis for strategy.
On what values was Optima Living founded?
Myself and my co-founder, Farid Damji, we've known each other for probably 30 odd years. Our wives are childhood best friends. Through that engagement, we [had many] lunches and coffees and dinners over the years, and we had actually intersected our careers, while he was running Vancouver General Hospital, and I was doing work in the supply chain of the Vancouver Coastal Health.
We started to talk about our common values, if you will, around the fact that we were both immigrants raised in multigenerational families, where the values of our grandmothers and grandparents were critical to our upbringing. In many ways, our grandparents raised us. Those conversations led us to think about, “How would we sustain the legacy of our immigrant grandparents?” In terms of our way of giving back and demonstrating gratitude to their efforts from moving to a new country, to helping us settle and to really sharing with us the values of living one's life through the ethos of ethics.
And that whole discussion led us, on the back of a napkin, to come up with our credo, that one day we wanted to be in business together to advance the cause of seniors’ living. And through that, we would be deeply rooted in this foundational credo of “Let us welcome you home,” because that concept, that North Star, would be fundamental for us to make sure that anybody that comes and lives with us would be able to share in the values set so aptly, where we were raised with by our grandparents, to make sure that that standard of life, that quality of living can also be achieved by many others who come live with us.
And so it started really as literally writing this down on the back of a napkin, coming up with our credo, and then some years later acquiring our first two assets.
What’s change have you seen in the senior care industry in the last ten years? [3:00]
You know, we've seen a tremendous amount of change over the last 13 years. I think when we got into [senior living], the primary focus was a bed, a place to sleep, and a place to be fed. Nobody really looked deeply into this notion of building community, this ”Let us welcome you home” principle, where [we thought deeply about the question of] “What does wellness look like and feel like? How does one think about mental health? How does one think about physical health?”
[We wanted to recognize] that each person comes with their own perspective. [Against] that whole background [the question for us is], “How do you provide safety and security in a way that not just the resident, but their family members can feel that sense of security, whether they're near or far?” So, I think there's been a lot of evolution in the last 13 years, as it relates to “What does it mean to live in a seniors’ residence?”
We've all seen more recently in the news, you know, a lot of misuse of terminology in terms of this concept of “nursing home.” There's a very uni-focus measure of what it's like to live in residences. And I just don't think that that's accurately reflected in the marketplace. And a lot of it is because of ignorance, quite frankly, of those that are writing about it, because there's been tremendous innovation and progress in the space over the last number of years.
We've seen a tremendous amount of change over the last 13 years. [Back then] nobody really looked deeply into this notion of building community, this 'Let us welcome you home' principal [or] 'What does wellness look like and feel like? How does one think about mental health? How does one think about physical health?'
How has your vision of valuing elders guided you as you’ve built Optima Living? [4:40]
As we think of a culture, what does the gift of failure look like? Because we're not going to get it right every single time. We know what our credo is, “Let us welcome you home.” We know that if you take care of the senior, the rest will take care of itself. But we also know that in that process, we make mistakes. And so, for us culturally, it was always, and it always has been, about owning up to that and making sure that we're always sincere in our purpose.
Look, this is about the human experience. If there's anything in [Optima Living’s] culture that we've been deliberate about, it's about having the sincerity of purpose, to offer the ability to someone to feel at home, to have that comfort, to have that dignity, to be respected, to be safe, and to do so in an environment where they can live their best lives.
As we have built our organization, we've recognized the need and importance to seek wisdom, knowledge, [and] expertise. And whether that's through community partnerships with the likes of the Alberta Continuing Care Association, in Alberta, or with the B.C. Seniors Living Association in B.C., or through knowledge partnerships with the University of Alberta, as we've done in Edmonton or the University of Manitoba, [the question is] “How do we bring new knowledge, new research to the forefront?” And that can manifest itself in ways, in many ways.
Number one, it's about leveraging senior educators to come and deliver their knowledge, their know-how to our residents and employees, so that they can learn to live their best life, whether that’s around mental health, whether it's from suffering with incontinence, [or] whether it's about healthy aging. How do we deliver on that expertise?
It could be about new technologies and research that are coming in the background. We've spent a lot of time thinking about brain health, [to] find ways to stay strong in later years. And in our partnerships with universities, we're using state-of-the-art new technologies to ensure that, as we're delivering services, that those services are foundationally rooted with the support of leading-edge researchers, so that we can take advantage of their knowledge up front in helping residents live their best life.
The third thing in my mind is about technologies more broadly. Whether it's using a touchless security system that allows us to track, through GPS, the whereabouts of our residents, whether it's about ensuring that if they have a fall, we know exactly where they are and we're able to go and serve them right away. Touchless entries on doors and entryways into their homes [ensure that] the spread of disease can be mitigated through that process. These are the types of things that we think about every day, around how do we deliver the next level of services to our residents, that allows them to be in a safer, healthier environment.
We were spending a lot of money on these technologies, but our vision was way ahead of what these technologies were able to offer. So, we were failing miserably every single time because they just wouldn't work. And we had to really try, over many, many years, to finally get to the point where we are now, where the tech finally has caught up. [If] you think about what Apple's done over the last 30, 40 years, they're not just a company that happened to hit success yesterday. They had to fail a number of times in that process. And I think the same characterization would be applicable to a lot of the things that we've tried.
How has your vision paid dividends in recent years? [8:50]
Eleven years ago, when we started a new development, we said we nailed it. We got this technology or our vision of touchless entry, GPS tracking and fall prevention, we found the integrators, we closed the transaction. [Then] COVID happened. And we thought, boy, either we could be [fortune] tellers, or we've just found something that really, all of a sudden now, is no longer just a safety precaution. Now we have an infection prevention strategy that's going to be met through this technology investment. I think for us, that was the big Aha! Moment, where technology meets innovation, meets the fundamentals of safety, security of the residents, with this layer of “how do you safely live in a pandemic environment?”
You know, this technology that we’re now introducing into our latest development, Aster Gardens in Sherwood Park … is going to be the best in class offering. We can actually offer the latest technology, but without compromising safety and security. In fact, [we’re] taking the requirements that the health authorities have had, and the governments have, around infection control and prevention and safety, and building all of that into this one technology.
So, with this one investment, we've solved so many issues that, from a resident perspective and from an employee perspective, we can now all of a sudden, by a measure of a quantum, protect everyone through this investment
How does the integration of technology improve seniors’ lives? [10:35]
From the perspective of what I mentioned earlier, as it relates to safety and security, everything is touchless, so they don't need a physical key to get in anywhere. When they move in, they get a band. That band allows them to move into common area doors, into their suite doors,
The other thing that is going to be exciting for them is that they could be sitting on the fourth floor having a beer, watching the hockey game, and it's time to clear the tab. They don't have to do anything, because everything is being tracked on their fob. So, they don't have to sign a piece of paper, they don't have to do any of that. They click it, and through the QR code technology, everything is being tracked for them.
They decide they want to go have a swim again. We know exactly where they are. One of our wellness coordinators will join them for that swim, make sure that they're safe and secure while they're entertaining. While they're having chair yoga, we know exactly where they are in that moment. And we know that if there are issues with their health during that chair yoga, that we can track and monitor their well-being.
[11:45] We also have a state-of-the-art memory care neighborhoods that we are offering at Aster Gardens. And that's what I think is [the] first of its kind in Alberta. And in the sense that, as I mentioned to you earlier, we value knowledge partnerships and so Optima’s Proprietary Brain Health Model was developed in concert with the University of Alberta and the University of Manitoba. So, we're taking both a very clinical approach and a very knowledge-based approach to the way in which we deliver our memory care services to our residents.
And the reason why they live in neighborhoods is because they're not done living their best life. We're going to provide tools and interesting ways in which they're going to be able to leverage the parts of their brain that they can use effectively, to make sure they have physical engagement, and really ensure that when they and their families are together, they really are able to live that life that their loved ones want them to lead.
[12:45] As part of that engagement, the partnership we have with the University of Manitoba is that they've introduced a number of new technologies which we're going to be piloting at Aster Gardens. That includes a brand new app called Mind Triggers. This app that's been developed with the University of Manitoba is going to enable us to work with residents and their families to look at how do you stimulate parts of the brain that today may not receive as much stimulation. And so through that, we are going to be able to study and understand how we can motivate parts of that brain to get reactivated, and to make sure that there's ways to slow down the aging of that brain.
We want to be at the forefront of that and give every opportunity to residents and their families to ensure their loved ones are being well-looked-after.
How do your research partners inform your approach? [13:42]
We're fortunate that these partnerships are great ways for us as industry- and knowledge-leaders, as universities, to come together and marry a thought process with action. And I say that, because the concept of living your best life isn't just about clinical outcomes. It's about social [and] mental outcomes. And so, at the end of the day, we're all people. And as individuals, as human beings, we need a lot more nurturing than just a clinical focus to be able to study the brain, to say, if you do this, then this will happen.
Certainly, you need that clinical focus. But I think us as operators are able to bring to knowledge leaders the perspective around the human element of healthy ageing. We're not just a place where we incubate technologies or a place where we work with our knowledge leaders to look at how new technologies work hand-in-hand with human behavior. Ultimately, it's our perspective as human beings that enable certain technologies to work effectively or not. And so, we try really hard to marry humanity and human behaviors with technology when we think about implementing something at any one of our residences.
We were both immigrants raised in multigenerational families, where the value of our grandmothers and grandparents were critical to our upbringing... Those conversations led us to think about, “How would we sustain the legacy of our immigrant grandparents?”
With the pandemic and other changes, how will the industry improve? [15:08]
That process [the pandemic] has created a tremendous amount of scrutiny in [senior living]. I think, with tragedy and with this type of scrutiny, the only thing that's going to happen is that the sector will have to continue to evolve and improve over the next 10 years. If you look at the demographic shift and profile of seniors today, we're about to see the most number of seniors ever in the history of this country.
So, the good news for those individuals who are now going to be hitting those years [and asking] where they will want to think about, where do they want to live, how do they want to live, which operator do they want to be supported by... The good news is there's going to be tremendous investment by the public sector and by the private sector to take … some of the approaches that we've had as an operator over the last number of years, but to amplify that significantly.
I think the perspective is going to be that seniors’ housing [and] senior living communities are going to be tremendously attractive two to three years from now because of all of the innovation and investment that's going to be coming into the sector.
[16:34] We will continue to invest in the space significantly. We will double down on the knowledge partnerships we've developed. We will work closely with government to make sure that investments are being made in the sector and in the space. We will drive innovation, quality of care, quality outcomes in terms of providing independence to residents who want to live that life to their fullest, in a way that's meaningful for everyone. I think there's a there's tremendous... opportunity.
And I think both from operators and from residents, there's going to be tremendous opportunity where residents will demand a certain standard, as they should. Their families will demand that standard. And us as operators are going to be called to the test, to over-deliver on the promises that we make, as leading operators in the space.
More about Optima Living
Optima Living communities are found across Alberta and British Columbia. In any community you can witness how the founding principles outlined above are put into action. Learn more about Optima Living.