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‘A Powerhouse’: Senior Living Leaders Mourn Industry Pioneer Maria Oliva

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Maria Oliva – whose pioneering career in senior living spanned three decades – died on Tuesday, prompting tributes from across the industry.

“She was one of the great thought leaders in our industry – a real powerhouse, pushing ideas before anyone else,” said Laurie Geschrey, who is CEO/Principal at OnePoint Consulting and worked with Oliva for 13 years at Pathway to Living.

Geschrey was not alone in describing Oliva as a powerhouse.

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“She was a powerhouse to the industry – unwavering in her mission to break out of the norms in seniors housing in the way that we were viewed, not just as an organization but as an industry,” said Lisa Rogers, who is currently vice president of people at Gardant Management and previously was director of human resources at Pathway to Living, where she worked with Oliva.

Oliva’s career in senior living began at Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle Corporation, which she joined when the provider’s portfolio numbered just four buildings. She played a key role in shaping Senior Lifestyle as the company began to scale up into the industry behemoth of today.

“Maria spent many years at Senior Lifestyle as our Vice President of Human Resources, and she made a positive impact on our operations and culture during a time of explosive growth,” said Vice Chairman and Chief Investment Officer Jerry Frumm. “We are all saddened to learn of Maria’s passing and offer our most sincere condolences to her family.”

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Following her time at Senior Lifestyle, her professional journey soon led her to another Chicago-based senior living provider, Pathway Senior Living. She began as HR director and ascended to COO. During her tenure, the company was an early mover in dropping the word “senior” from its name, and Oliva played a key role in the change.

The process of coming up with a new name for the company was difficult, due to the strong brand recognition that Pathway had achieved, Oliva explained in 2019, when being recognized as an industry changemaker by Senior Housing News.

“We were just having a meeting, we were sitting in my office. Sometimes I think you get these clarities, and I said, ‘Why don’t we just call ourselves Pathway to Living?’” Oliva said during her Changemakers Series interview. “The VP said, ‘Did you just pull that out of thin air?’ It just came to me. And it made sense.”

The rebranding was just one of many changes that Pathway enacted while Oliva was the leader of operations. Through its Viva operating model, the company became a pioneer in coordinated care and resident wellness before these trends became widespread. And Pathway also was a pioneer in building a multi-brand portfolio segmented by price point, including Victory Centre affordable communities and Azpira Place middle-market communities.

All this changemaking did not necessarily come naturally to Oliva, who was doubtful of her ability to drive innovation when she first assumed Pathway’s operational leadership role, said Brian Cloch, an owner of Pathway who had first hired Oliva. Despite her initial trepidation, Oliva quickly grew into the role, Cloch said, and “the company flourished.”

Indeed, Oliva embraced the need for change and evolution and ingrained that value in the company’s culture.

“She instilled in us the importance of pioneering and setting new standards, always emphasizing the need for change and that we create the change,” said Nicole Bartecki, who worked with Oliva at Pathway for 11 years and is currently VP of sales and marketing at Anthem Memory Care. “Maria’s fearlessness in trying new approaches taught us invaluable lessons about learning from mistakes and embracing risks as essential steps toward progress.”

Pathway began to punch well above its weight as a mid-sized regional company, becoming a model for other providers across the sector.

“From an industry perspective, she was a great leader and visionary, and turned into an innovator,” said Cloch.

Geschrey echoed that point, saying, “She always thought bigger than Pathway.”

Juniper Communities CEO Lynne Katzmann – a member of the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) Hall of Fame – was among those who was inspired and influenced by the work that Oliva did at Pathway, including in creating more affordable communities.

“I was amazed how upscale an affordable building could be,” Katzmann said, of the first time she entered one of the communities. “When I next saw Maria, I peppered her with questions, and she nonchalantly answered me that there were always ways to achieve beauty and afford people dignity if you put the time and energy into it. Maria was ahead of her time and working on great options for the forgotten middle. She was a kind, fun and collaborative spirit, and I shall miss her greatly.”

Oliva’s influence on the industry also stems from the fact that she was a dedicated mentor who nurtured the careers of many current leaders in the field, maintaining close connections with them even after she retired from Pathway to Living in 2022.

“Her absence leaves an irreplaceable void in my heart, but I am forever grateful for the privilege of being mentored by Maria, as it has undoubtedly made me a better person,” said Bartecki.

Colleen Wille, who today is assistant vice president for sales and operations at Silver Birch Living, got her start in the industry when Oliva hired her 29 years ago.

“I could give so many examples of the support, both personal and professional, that she consistently demonstrated; I consider myself fortunate to be the recipient of these examples so many times over the past 29 years,” Wille said. “This week, our industry lost someone who created impactful change. Those of us who had the benefit of knowing and working with her are committed to carrying on her legacy.”

Her legacy also is carried on by her family, including her fiance Mark, her children Lauren and Jason, and her four grandchildren. And as Jason was a Senior Housing News reporter for several years, his mother’s legacy also extends to this publication.

“She dedicated the entirety of her professional life to the seniors housing and care industry. With her background in human resources, she understood wholeheartedly that this is a people-first business,” Jason shared. “Anyone who has ever worked with her, from colleagues to the people working and living in the communities she served, will recall the professionalism, compassion, and dignity with which she carried herself and extended to everyone she met. She will be missed, but certainly not forgotten in the lives she’s touched.”

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