Molly Forrest plans the future at the Los Angeles Jewish Home

It is just before noon at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, and Molly Forrest, president and CEO, is giving a tour of the home’s most populous campus, the Eisenberg Village in Reseda, when a silvery-haired woman in a shmatte starts roaming the hallway shouting, “Lunchtime! Everyone! Luuuuunnnnnch tiiiiime!” — with the urgency of air raid sirens.
October 23, 2014

It is just before noon at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, and Molly Forrest, president and CEO, is giving a tour of the home’s most populous campus, the Eisenberg Village in Reseda, when a silvery-haired woman in a shmatte starts roaming the hallway shouting, “Lunchtime! Everyone! Luuuuunnnnnch tiiiiime!” — with the urgency of air raid sirens. 

Welcome to mealtime for more than 500 elderly Jews whose appetites, not to mention attitudes, have barely weakened with age. 

Forrest, 65, laughs and throws her head back, declaring, “She wants lunch!” 

Suddenly a flurry of staff mobilizes to escort the residents into the dining hall, where hot dogs and corn are among the strictly kosher items on offer. Forrest, a petite woman with cropped blond hair and cerulean eyes, quickly moves the tour to the dining room. She is dressed in a light-gray pantsuit, with an ice-blue blouse buttoned conservatively to the neck. As she breezes from table to table, chatting effortlessly, Forrest seems more the consummate host greeting her honored guests than the resident boss. She even makes a point of kneeling when addressing a resident who is seated or confined to a wheelchair so as not to appear to talk down to anyone or make them strain their necks. 

“Hello there, how are you today?” Forrest says, her voice so pillowy and friendly you find yourself leaning in to hear her. 

“And you are?” a female resident asks. 

“I’m Molly Forrest. I’m with the Jewish Home.” 

“Mottttherrr,” exclaims a middle-aged woman seated across the table. “She’s the CEO! The head, head honcho! She’s the person my sister Rocky called to get you in here!” 

Forrest tries not to blush, then offers, divertingly, “Well, tell your sister, ‘Thank you for choosing the Jewish Home.’ ” Forrest has a marvelous way of deflecting personal recognition into accolade for the home she has led and grown since 1996. “How’s it going so far?” she asks the resident. 

“I’m getting used to it,” the woman in her 80s responds. “I couldn’t take the cold winters in Pleasanton [Calif.] anymore.” 

“She’s so grateful to be in the warm temperature,” the resident’s daughter adds. “I told her, ‘Mother, I promise you one thing: You’ll never be cold again!’ ” 

It would not be a stretch to say, metaphorically speaking, that it is Forrest herself who has ensured the Jewish Home’s continued warmth. But even more than that she has managed to recast one of life’s more challenging chapters into a dignified denouement. 

In youth-obsessed Los Angeles, Forrest has invested herself in the opposite direction, focusing her work on enriching the quality of life of seniors. “We always say, ‘We add life to years, and years to life,’ ” she said, touting the home’s unofficial mantra. “No one here says, ‘Gee, I’m on my final chapter.’ We have to stay positive in focus and make the point that every day is worth living.” 

From left: Molly Forrest, Joyce Brandman, Louis Gonda and Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer break ground on the Gonda Healthy Aging Westside Campus.

During her 18 years working at the Jewish Home, Forrest has sought to reposition what was once a campus in decline into a state-of-the-art complex of campuses that anticipates the needs of the future. To that end, she has added an array of new buildings and services to the home, now totaling 21 programs on three Valley-based campuses — Eisenberg Village, the Hirsch Family Campus and Grancell Village, all in Reseda — with a new Westside campus due to open in 2016 in Playa Vista. As part of Forrest’s vision, many of the home’s offerings are now designed to benefit not only residents but also the community at large. Among its cutting-edge health services are hospice care, palliative care and geriatric psychiatry (“The demographic with the highest suicide rate in the nation is men over the age of 65,” Forrest said), as well as the Brandman Centers for Senior Care, which offers all-inclusive health care treatment in the comfort of one’s own home. On the Eisenberg campus, there is a residential treatment center for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients (statistics show that by the time one reaches 85, there is about a 50 percent chance of mental decline), as well as in-house clinics offering ophthalmology, dental care and other geriatric services. 

Forrest also has ramped up good-business practices: When the home’s current employees, many of whom are low-wage workers, asked Forrest for job mobility opportunities, she created the Annenberg School of Nursing, a $6.5 million facility at the Hirsch Family campus, where employees can train to become RNs, LVNs and CNAs, in-demand positions throughout her industry. And what’s more, she has managed to hire 40 percent of the graduates. “When I came to the Jewish Home, I didn’t go out and recruit people to come here; I tried to work with people who were already here,” she said, noting how common it is for the home’s employees to work there for many years. One of the things Forrest stakes her leadership upon is that “people will sometimes bloom where they are planted.” It’s one of the reasons she created Fountainview, an upscale retirement community for independent living that offers the well-heeled spa-style amenities such as in-house facials, massages and personal trainers. Residents may not ever need the continuum of care found elsewhere on campus, but it is there if they do. 

If it’s hard to get excited about that time in life when we may require any of what the Jewish Home offers, it is almost certain that someday these needs will reach us or someone we love. In fact, current demographic studies show that the U.S. is headed for a radical population shift that will require elder care beyond anything known before in human history. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, by the year 2030 adults aged 65 and older will account for roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population — that’s upwards of 70 million people — compared with just 12 percent, or 39 million, in 2009. The trend will be true as well in the local Jewish population of nearly 600,000, which means that in 15 years, 120,000 L.A. Jews will need what Forrest is building. 

“Everyone used to say, ‘Oh you’re that little nursing home,’ or, ‘You’re that wonderful home in the Valley,’ ” Forrest recalled during a series of interviews in recent months. When she first arrived at the home, it served about 650 seniors and residents annually with a $25 million budget; today the home serves nearly 5,000 people annually with a total operating budget of $120 million. It is now the largest nonprofit skilled-nursing provider in California. And yet, it is still nowhere close to meeting the demand: “We are grossly underserving the actual needs of the community,” Forrest said. 

Last April, with the help of billionaire Holocaust survivor Leslie Gonda and his now-late wife, Susan, Forrest oversaw the ceremonial groundbreaking for one of her most ambitious projects yet — 2 1/2-acre Fountainview at Gonda Healthy Aging Westside campus in Playa Vista, the Jewish Home’s first foray into the Westside. The Gonda campus will offer the same continuum of care the Jewish Home is known for — but with more amenities and more glitz. Construction is now underway for 175 upscale, independent-living apartments featuring multiple dining venues, lounges, fitness and swimming facilities, as well as lush, green walking paths; there will also be 24 units of assisted living and memory care. The independent-living apartments come with a steep Westside entry fee of $850,000 per unit, though 90 percent is refundable upon leaving. According to Forrest, demand is high: 90 percent of Gonda already had been sold by the time construction began in September. 

Forrest knows the home can’t be all things to all people, but she does believe it has a community-wide role to play. For instance, although the home offers kosher food and a variety of Jewish programs and services, it is open to non-Jews, as well. And eventually, Forrest hopes the home will be able to serve every L.A. Jew who needs it. “One of our questions here is always: What makes the Jewish Home Jewish?” she said. “And besides kosher food, and observance of Jewish holidays and Shabbat, then you get down to: The home has to have a heart. It has to be a support, a friend, a confidante and a partner.” 

Molly Forrest visits with resident Hedy Asher in the arts and crafts center at the Home’s Eisenberg Village campus. 

In some ways, Forrest may be too good at her job. One reason the home has a perennial waiting list is because turnover is remarkably low. Even with residents whose average age upon entry is 84, the median length of stay at the Jewish Home is seven years and 10 months, compared with a national average of two to three years, according to the U.S. Department of Health. That’s probably one of the best measures of Forrest’s job performance, and one reason she is L.A.’s highest-paid female executive in the Jewish nonprofit world. According to the home’s tax filings on GuideStar.org, in 2012 Forrest took home a salary and benefits package of nearly $640,000, the kind that could win over even the most gerascophobic. 

“I met with a donor once who said ‘I don’t do old,’ and I was rather taken aback,” Forrest said during an interview at her Grancell Village office last summer. “The first thing a society of values does is to take care of those who have built where you stand, and to nurture those who inherit what you built. So, to ignore those who built our society seems, to me, to be cruel.” 

The care her parents didn’t get

Forrest grew up in the small town of Roseburg, Ore. (population 11,000 back then), where her very large household included nine children (seven biological siblings and two adopted cousins) as well as her grandmother. “It worked very well,” she said of the large brood. Her father owned a local lumber company, and her mother, having earned a degree in economics, had worked as a credit manager for the retailer Montgomery Ward, where the two met. The family’s lifestyle was unexceptional, Forrest said, despite the fact that her father was successful. “When you own your own company, it’s called chicken or feathers,” she said. “You either have plenty, or you’re scrambling; as the economy rises and falls, your fortunes change.” 

As practicing Catholics, her parents emphasized humility. “The first television I ever saw was through the window of a neighbor’s house,” she said. “We didn’t own one. We had a bicycle.” Both of Forrest’s parents lived through the Great Depression and began instilling awareness of the less fortunate in their children early on. “We were always told we had to give,” Forrest said as she enumerated her mother’s volunteer positions. Every time they went to the park, she recalled, her mother would give the kids bags with which to collect garbage before they could play. When Forrest’s father finally sold his lumber business, she recalled, his first act was to pay off the mortgages of the local hospital emergency room and their church. 

As a student, Forrest majored in English literature at Oregon State University and married shortly after graduation. The young couple moved to Oroville, Calif., north of Sacramento, where her husband went to work in lumber production. Forrest took a job at a local nursing home, working six days a week as a jack-of-all-trades for what amounted to less than minimum wage. “I learned how to run the dishwasher, bleed a boiler, plant rat traps and — worse — clean them out from under the building,” she said with pride. At the end of a year, her boss helped her get a nursing home administrator’s license, through which Forrest learned to read a profit-and-loss statement, studied human anatomy and physiology and learned basic medical terminology. She also read the collected works of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the death-and-dying guru of the 20th century. 

Resident Nat Aboulafia chats with Molly Forrest during lunch in the Eisenberg Village dining room.

“I never intended to be in this field,” she said, reflecting on the providence of those early years. “I wanted to teach college literature.” 

But as her career began to take shape, her personal life fell apart. Her husband lost his job and returned to Oregon to look for work while Forrest moved to Sacramento to run another of her boss’s nursing homes. The couple reunited at the end of a year, when Forrest returned to Oregon to take a job with Lane County government running its Title VII programs, which dealt with elder rights and care. Her career was taking off, while her husband still couldn’t find work, and Forrest was supporting them both. When she became pregnant and had her first child at 29, her husband began to resent her. “He would walk in and say, ‘I wish you weren’t here, and I don’t really want to be a father,’ ” Forrest recalled. Forrest agreed to support him while he returned to school for a master’s degree, and even paid his tuition. But after that, it was over: “I moved out the day he graduated,” she said. 

Forrest continued to broaden her role with Lane County, where she developed a variety of targeted housing and community programs for special needs populations, including the homeless, handicapped, ex-offenders, veterans, the elderly, abused women and children, and even first-time homeowners. She worked so hard that the county allowed her to keep a crib for her son, Brian, in her office so that she could bring him with her to work. But the distance between Forrest and her ex-husband wasn’t wide enough, so she decided to move to Los Angeles. 

“My father offered to buy me a [nursing] facility in Oregon, but he wanted me to have more experience,” Forrest recalled. “And I thought, you know, everybody says if you go  to L.A. and make it in L.A., you can sort of do whatever you want.” 

In 1979, she arrived in Los Angeles and began working for Flagg Industries, a nursing home chain. That was how she met Lillian Lieberman, director of nursing at one of the homes, who introduced her to Judaism. A long-lapsed Catholic, Forrest was in search of spirituality and decided to enroll in an introduction to Judaism course at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University, or AJU). In 1982, she converted and, not long after, met the lawyer Erwin Diller and married him. “I always call my husband my reward for choosing to be Jewish,” she joked. With Diller, Forrest had her second child, but she refused to change her name a second time, a hard-won lesson from when she briefly had done so for her first marriage. “Women talk about the glass ceiling, but we don’t see what we do to ourselves,” she said, explaining how she got her first L.A. job when a job agency administrator recognized her maiden name. “The ‘old boy’ network is made up of associations, and I am a firm believer that, by giving up your name as an adult, you lose connections.” 

By 1986, Forrest had become regional director of American Medical Services, overseeing 16 nursing and health care facilities spread throughout the West Coast. She was well poised for a high-powered career with a major for-profit enterprise, but when news arrived that the company was going to be sold, Forrest decided to quit. The merged company would expect her to oversee more than 100 facilities in several states. “I didn’t really want to do that,” she said, noting that she had two children to care for. “I would never be home.” 

But it was what happened next that would dramatically influence the course of her destiny: When Forrest was 42, her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she and her family relocated to Oregon for the next five years in order to care for both of her parents. The experience was scarring. The first time her father visited his wife in a nursing-home dementia unit, he fell, broke his arm and nose and, 10 days later, died unexpectedly of complications from the injury. Despite Forrest’s best, even expert, efforts, she wit nessed her mother’s steady and severe decline over the next few years in a home that could not properly care for her. The whole period was a mess, and it left Forrest filled with regrets. But the experience was also instructive: From the pain of watching her parents suffer — seeing her mother scream and hit and strapped to a bed, hearing her father cry — and experiencing firsthand the care that did little to help them, and may even have worsened their conditions, Forrest found her calling. 

“I wanted to give people the kind of life and care my parents should have had in Oregon and never got, and create for others what I could never achieve for them,” she said. Less than six months after her mother died, Forrest walked out of a three-hour job interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s executive committee to become the home’s new COO. Six months after that, she was named CEO. 

Medi-Cal, the waitlist and the donors 

“I was knocked over by Molly,” Jeff Glassman, the Jewish Home’s current board chair, said of meeting her. “She really, instantly, struck me as one of the great leaders of the nonprofit world. She has a command for most everything that’s going on, and she just clearly loves it. From the moment you meet her, you know she’s very special.” 

Joanne Handy, president and CEO of Lead ingAge California, an advocacy organization for senior living and care, has worked with Forrest over the last five years to bring industry concerns to the California State Legislature. Forrest serves as a board member. 

“I think she’s one of the more dynamic leaders in the industry,” Handy said. “She’s very passionate, compelling and convincing. And she’s constantly moving forward. It was very strategic to position the home to be a contemporary organization in today’s health care environment, and part of what allows her to do that is her grasp of the overall environment in which she operates — she’ll know all about what’s going on with major medical centers, physician groups and insurance companies. She’s the type of person who has vision and who can execute. Sometimes you get someone who has a lot of vision but can’t execute; she has both.” 

In 2012, when the home was fielding as many as 200 inquiries per week from families of aging seniors seeking help, Forrest established Connections to Care, an in-house concierge service that offers guidance and advice to seniors and their families, free of charge. It is illustrative of her values-based policy: If the home itself cannot accommodate certain people, it will direct them toward a place that can. “We want to be a partner for the whole life experience,” Forrest said. 

Even as it grows, the home continues to have a notorious waitlist for many of its facilities. To secure one of the coveted 510 beds in skilled nursing care, for example, the wait is anywhere from 18 months to three years. The home does give priority to people who meet certain criteria 

— family members of current residents, supporters and volunteers for the home, “survivors of traumatic life events” and Jewish communal professionals, to name a few — but for the thousands of both Jewish and non-Jewish seniors who can’t score a spot on campus, “We needed to have a better answer,” Forrest said. 

And for all her ingenuity and innovation, Forrest also has to fund her vision. Keeping the home operational is a constant balancing act, especially since the majority of its residents fall below the poverty line. “We will always have obstacles, because the board of the home which represents the community wants the home to serve those who are financially needy,” she said. Forrest estimates that as many as 75 percent of Jewish Home residents are on Medi-Cal, California’s health care plan for low-income individuals, which often pays less than what is needed to operate. But unlike most high-end private facilities, ability to pay is not a criterion for residency; if a resident runs out of money, the home accepts welfare payments. 

Expanding services for a high-end clientele — and charging accordingly — is one way Forrest has helped offset the cost of sustaining the home’s low-income residents. Given today’s increasing life spans and the aging boomer population, which will double the number in need of senior care within two decades, the cost of running a nonprofit senior care facility will inevitably and consistently outpace even the boldest new efforts at creating revenue. 

“When Medicare first came out [in 1965], they did a study based in Europe which basically said that if you lived to be 65 you were really old, and not many people were supposed to live that long,” Forrest said. “So when they set up Social Security, it was supposed to be a safety net for the oldest of the old. Well, move forward in time, and the new policies for life insurance are being written with actuarial tables that end at [age] 120. We  now are seeing the longest life spans in the history of the human race.” 

For Forrest and the Jewish Home, these trends mean two things: more services and more fundraising. 

“We depend upon philanthropy,” Forrest said, plain and simple. “If we did not get donations, we would be bankrupt.” 

To her credit, Forrest has developed a reliable donor pool that includes some of the biggest names in local philanthropy, many of them women — Wallis Annenberg, Ruth Ziegler, Joyce Eisenberg and Joyce Brandman, all of whom, with the exception of Ziegler, have either a program or a building named for them. Ziegler, Forrest said, was a key funder during her first five years there, anonymously contributing several million dollars each year to keep it operational. “I always tell her she’s like the mother of the home because without her help, we wouldn’t be here,” Forrest said. 

Yet Forrest resists referring to that part of her job as “fundraising.”

“I’m not a salesman called in to close a deal,” Forrest said. Instead, she prefers to call it friend-raising: “It is my approach that significant gifts come to advance a vision, and these philanthropists view themselves as partners in what we’re trying to do. And partners need to be treated like partners — and valued friends.” 

Despite the plethora of women donors, Forrest laments that only one woman has led the board in the home’s history, though she hopes that will change in the coming year, when the board will elect its next chair. Even so, the makeup of the board has morphed quite dramatically since Forrest arrived, since one of her first acts as CEO was to shrink it from 113 members to 16, helped, in no small part, by requiring a minimum yearly contribution of $10,000 (in practice, the average annual board gift is north of $20,000, Forrest said). Oddly enough, her penchant for taking risks and challenging her board hasn’t exactly upset them. 

“If there’s one criticism I have, it’s that she may take on a little too much sometimes,” board chair Glassman said.

The world has noticed her efforts. Last April, Forrest was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles Business Journal; in May she received an honorary doctorate from AJU; and in June, she was invited to the White House to present her solution on how to reduce hospital readmission rates and lower costs using funding from the Affordable Care Act. 

Tireless though she may be, Forrest’s appetite for excellence is not only professional, it’s personal. “Here, I could pour in some of the grief over what I couldn’t do for my mother into creating a life for the residents here,” she said. As it says in Leviticus, “You shall honor the old.” 

“There’s a wonderful teaching in Maimonides,” Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Fein-stein, one of Forrest’s admirers, said when asked to speak about the home’s Jewish significance. “It answers the question: ‘What happens if I have a parent who I love and revere, but who I really don’t have the capacity to take care of?’ And it’s a very touching question, because there’s this mitzvah in the Torah: ‘Honor your mother and father,’ which the Talmud always understood as caring for them. But there come moments when our parents have needs that we can’t meet, [and] Maimonides takes this into consideration and says, ‘You owe your parents the utmost respect, love and reverence, but if their needs exceed your capacity, you need to turn them over to someone who could care for them in the way you would want. 

“And that’s exactly what the [Jewish] home does,” Feinstein said. “That’s what makes the place so special and why it’s the fulfillment of this deep Jewish sense of responsibility to our elders.” 

In a final interview, Forrest summed up what drove her success at Jewish Home.

“When I came to the Jewish home, I thought, one day of this kind of life for my parents would have made their lives worth living,” Forrest said, wistfully. “And I wanted the home, which is such a pearl, to be available for anyone who needs it. For those who have resources and can pay, we should be an answer for you. And if you don’t, we should be an answer for you.”

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