Lunch with Mimi: Tonda Aumiller of the New Harmony at State College Leads a Community Focused on Personal and Memory Care
Tonda Aumiller, executive director for Harmony at State College, has spent most of her career as a personal care home administrator. Aumiller worked at Juniper Village at Brookline in State College for more than 26 years before moving to Harrisburg to work at Country Meadows. She returned to State College a year ago to facilitate the opening of a new senior living community.
Harmony at State College, managed by Harmony Senior Services, will have its grand opening on October 3 from 4:30-7:30 p.m. and will provide personal care and memory care options for residents. With 38 apartments of secured memory care and 74 personal care apartments, Harmony of State College will offer various levels of care, accommodating residents as their health needs change.
Aumiller was born and raised in McAlisterville; her mother was a certified nurse’s aide who worked in nursing homes and as a private caregiver. At a young age, she loved being around her grandparents and older people in her life. Currently, she is a volunteer community educator for the Alzheimer’s Association and a support group facilitator.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith met with Aumiller in early July at Gigi’s Southern Table to discuss her passion for personal care and what makes Harmony at State College, located on Havershire Drive in Ferguson Township, a unique community.
Mimi: Are you a local?
Tonda: Yes. I currently live in Juniata County, where I was born and raised, but lived in Mifflin County for 20 years. I've worked here most of my career and now I have an opportunity to come back, so it's exciting. I have met so many people.
Mimi: So, you came up through the ranks of senior living. You were at the forefront, really, of a major change of an industry in this particular market.
Tonda: Absolutely. When I started working in Mifflintown, I started as an activity director for Brookline, and we had so many people bringing loved ones to Mifflintown from State College, and that's why Brookline decided to come to State College. When I think back over the years of some of the wonderful people I met and worked with, like Jim Tarmin and his wife, and Judge Wilkinson. They are just some great people. Col. Gerald Russell was someone that I came to know and love, so it's been a real blessing for me to be a part of their lives, you know, with this journey in their lives.
Mimi: Now here you are as the chief of the newest [senior living] option in State College – Harmony. Tell our readers a little bit about that.
Tonda: Well, Harmony Senior Services is a family-owned business that originated in Charleston, South Carolina. We have a corporate office there, and then also one in Roanoke, Virginia. There are 23 communities. One of the things that impressed me about the owner, Jim Smith, is that he has been the visionary in assisted living [and] personal care and he tells a little story about his own parents moving in. Sometimes, our experience in our personal lives makes a difference. We have 23 communities operating and three more opening this year in Hershey, Tennessee, and Virginia. Harmony at State College [was to open] in mid-August.
Mimi: I'm fascinated. You're a giant professional, learned by doing. Never went to college, right? Tell me a little bit about what that means to you.
Tonda: Well, it means that I worked very hard. And I have to say working in a college town for many years, I was a little intimidated by that. But I've come to learn over the years that my experience, expertise, and ability to lead a team has really changed how I feel. I think when I was a little younger, I was a little uncomfortable with that and self-conscious, but I made sure my daughter went on to get her education and she did.
Mimi: Is she in the same field?
Tonda: She's not. She's in early childhood development, elementary education. She's a teacher in Mifflin County.
Mimi: At age 86, I thought it was time for me to move into a retirement community. I'm amazed at how friendly everybody is. Does that happen at all places?
Tonda: I think that comes from the top. I'm a firm believer in that: I think that you have to find the right people, and I think just instilling the culture that you want with your team. We have competitors, but I like to think that we all have a niche somewhere and if we can't help somebody, we want to be a resource. So, we may refer them to someone else if we can’t help them.
Mimi: It seems to me that, at least the places I spoke to, nobody talked negatively about competition. It seems to be a camaraderie and respect for the work that you're doing individually, but collectively in the market, which is unlike most other businesses.
Tonda: It's exciting. It's almost like we went from zero to 150 in a couple of weeks, because our community got hit with a lot of delays with construction, but now it's actually finished. Now we're putting the team together, hiring, and planning to move our residents in soon.
Mimi: Nobody's moved in yet?
Tonda: No, only the staff has moved in. The management team is there.
Mimi: When do you see yourself opening?
Tonda: We should be starting to move our residents in around August 15.
Mimi: Well, have you been involved in the initial marketing for other places like this? And how does the response compare? Is this a high-level market to come into where you get lots of prospects from that wonderful advocate?
Tonda: Well, the one thing that we're hearing a lot of is there's a huge need for memory care. And it's all about the safety of the resident that might have Alzheimer's or symptoms of dementia. When I've been talking to our referral sources, it's nice to be able to offer people an option to live in a community that can provide memory care and not have to live in a nursing home. The response has been great and I'm really excited about Harmony. I love our mission statement. It's about the comforts of home, the care professionals, and the energy of life.
Mimi: From your perspective, what's the most important part of assisted living arrangements for people that want to go to a retirement community?
Tonda: The most important part is everybody's needs are different. Some people are looking to move before they have any issues. They're in a place where they're safe, and they're prepared. Some people need a lot of assistance, maybe with medications or bathing. Everybody's needs are different. I like that we can offer different levels of help for some folks who need more, and some folks who need less. That way, you're not paying for services that you're not getting.
I think the one thing I'm really excited about that we're going to be able to offer is a great clinical piece. It’s great to have a brand new building, but I think I am most proud of the commitment that we have to the clinical care of our residents. We have a registered nurse who's our director of nursing. We call her the health care coordinator, so that's certainly not necessary, according to our state regulations. And then we're also forming a partnership with Dr. Rodney Sepich to be a medical director. We will have his services and the services of his group in our building. He will not be there at all times, but we will have someone from his company or his group there a day or two a week, depending on what people's needs are. And that's huge because going out to a doctor's appointment can be exhausting and tiring, so having somebody that comes to you I think is a great aspect.
Mimi: Harmony is emphasizing dementia and Alzheimer's. You've zeroed in on the most frightening part of the aging process for those of us who think we still have it all. To me, that has to be the largest channel of balance that the industry has because there's so many different levels.
Tonda: So many different types of so many other related diseases will cause people to have symptoms of dementia, and then, of course, Alzheimer's disease is huge.
Mimi: What’s the difference between the two?
Tonda: Well, Alzheimer's disease is a specific disease of the brain. Dementia is a symptom sometimes of many other diseases – for example, you can have vascular dementia, which is caused by the veins and the arteries getting harder and the blood flow not going to the brain. There's alcohol-induced dementia, there's Parkinson's-induced dementia. So, there's all kinds of dementia.
For me, becoming a support group facilitator a few years ago opened my eyes up to some of the struggles that people have caring for their loved ones at home and the sacrifices they make. Their loved ones may now come and live in my community.
The Alzheimer's Association website has a phenomenal amount of resources that people can go and get, such as information about new drugs, as well as a place where there's a 24/7 hotline. So, if you're in crisis, and it's the middle of the night, and you're caring for somebody, you can pick up the phone and call them. It's a wonderful resource.
Mimi: How did you know when you graduated from high school that you were going to end up in a career that was totally defined by helping others?
Tonda: Well, I believe my mother influenced that. My mother was a very wonderful certified nurse's aide, single mom, and worked in a nursing home when I was growing up. I guess in those days, it wasn't really called volunteering, but there were times that we would go along. Sometimes they would have events, and she would take us along to help with those events. I had wonderful grandparents and just always loved being around older people all my life.
And then, my mom went on to be a private caregiver for people after she retired. She did home care for a while out in people's homes and private care for people. She had a great reputation as a caregiver, so I guess I got my caring heart from my mom.
Mimi: That's the greatest compliment a child can give to a mother. To continue in a special way the mission she had. I would imagine your greatest challenge is finding the right help to form the team that will march to your baby. How have you found that to be here?
Tonda: Well, one of the directors of sales and marketing I worked with in Harrisburg for Country Meadows as my marketer and love her. She's just amazing. And we kept in touch, and I said I knew that she had moved to State College because her husband was offered a job to come up and be the general manager of Bobby Rahal. They moved to State College – which he didn't mind because he's a huge Penn State fan – so I reached out to her and said, “Guess where I'm going to be coming to work? State College. Would you want to come and work with me?” So, she and I are back working together.
I have another great marketer, Emily. I found a wonderful registered nurse to be our health care coordinator. The life enrichment director worked at one of our communities in Tennessee and moved to State College because her husband works for the Penn State football team. I almost have my whole team complete. The director of dining services/executive chef and I worked together many years ago at Brookline; she is amazing. The maintenance director comes with many years of experience.
Mimi: You've been in State College before, so you know what a giving community it is. I would imagine you'll have no problem with the volunteer community of Happy Valley because it's just an amazing source.
Tonda: It is, and we volunteer, too. We want to be part of the community as well. We had an opportunity to be a part of the United Way Day of Caring and of course that was special to me because of Col. Russell. At Harmony Senior Services, we want to be part of the State College community and do what we can.
Mimi: Well, we hope this conversation helps you get more friends. Let me welcome you on behalf of the aging community as another option for people to live happily ever after.
Tonda: Well, I thank you and I've always admired you and all that you've done for women in State College, so I thank you for having me.
Mimi: Great to be with you and we wish you the best of luck.