Aging is a normal and accepted part of the human condition. This reality makes it no less difficult to experience the process, whether it is on an individual basis or observing a loved one as they age. In the Upper Peninsula, an example of this support to our area seniors is the North Woods Place Senior Living assisted living community located in Escanaba, MI. North Woods is part of the Enlivant Assisted Living family, which runs 230 senior living communities across 27 states.

Nicki Owens has been the Community Relations Manager at North Woods Place for three years. She is in charge of making the move to an assisted living community easier for each resident. She also assists in creating a healthy and active community environment. The idea of senior living often conjures up images of stale nursing homes with harsh fluorescent lighting. North Woods is not that, and is just one example of the direction senior care is taking in communities throughout the country.

“People hesitate to consider leaving home because of the ‘nursing home’ stigma,” Owens said. “When folks tell me they’re never going to a nursing home I say ‘GOOD! Because we’re not one.’ Some seniors are concerned that family members are trying to “put them somewhere” and lock the door, throw away the key. We can be a temporary solution to help people get back on their feet and succeed at home. If returning home is their goal, it’s our goal too.”

North Woods Place offers one bedroom or studio apartments for each resident. They also develop individualized care plans to meet the needs of each resident, and a full-time registered nurse is available 24 hours a day to provide clinical oversight and coordination of care. Residents enjoy social events and activities, plus the additional support of a staff trained to monitor and provide needed personal care.

The Northern Michigan University Center for Rural Health talked with Owens about the importance of building strong community relations within our region’s senior community. Read on for her firsthand account.


What drew you to working in senior care? What makes you so passionate about this work?

I lived with my grandparents as a teenager. They were in their 80s and began experiencing health issues and struggled to thrive at home as I struggled to help find solutions that met their needs. Being able to help families going through that struggle is why I do what I do.

How has building a strong community relationship benefited your work, and the seniors you work with?

Being aware of other services in the area that assist seniors in different ways has allowed me to provide those resources to families in need. If North Woods Place is not the right fit for any reason, that family will still walk away from our conversation knowing where next to turn.

What are some ways you have strengthened the community at North Woods Place?

In this season of pandemic shut-downs, seniors worry about not being able to see their loved ones if they must leave home to receive care. We’ve been able to help keep families together. All of our residents and staff are fully vaccinated against COVID, which has allowed us to remain open for visitation 24/7. Our residents enjoyed time with their loved ones this holiday season. And when a married senior is in need of assisted living, their independent spouse can come reside at North Woods Place too, so they need not be separated.

What collaborative efforts have you pursued that have produced positive outcomes towards your work?

The Delta County Senior Networking Group has transitioned from in-person to virtual meetings to continue sharing info safely. We’ve collaborated with professionals serving seniors in our County, and shared resources on topics such as: home health programs, veterans’ mental health, services for the vision impaired, transportation options, pain management, elder law, financial services, fitness programs, etc. Everyone walks away with knowledge to take back to their workplaces that their teams can use to serve seniors immediately.

What has been the most interesting part of being involved in this work?

Every day is different. I’m privy to information on family dynamics and living conditions of local seniors. In the past three years I’ve seen it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The goal is always to work together with families to address everyone’s concerns and agree on a plan for their loved one’s well-being. Having those conversations is not always easy, but it’s worth it.

If you could name the most important, crucial piece of improving senior living solutions in rural communities specifically, what would it be?

More funding for affordable senior housing options - independent AND assisted living.

What do you feel are some crucial steps that can be taken to improve senior living solutions in rural areas?

Instead of responding to urgent calls from hospital social workers regarding discharging patients in desperate need of a solution within 24-48 hours, I’d like to see more referrals from home health and physician clinics. They’re often the first to see the signs that someone is no longer thriving at home. If we can intervene to meet those needs sooner, we can help keep that patient out of the hospital or emergency room.

How can we better support our aging population here in the Upper Peninsula?

Transportation solutions including medical appointments and church services on weekends. Additional staffing to expand capacity for in-home care and personal aide services.

What is your connection to the Northern Michigan Center for Rural Health? How does this partnership benefit your work or how may it benefit in the future?

I was included in email communications for Marquette’s Senior Provider Networking Group, where I was introduced to Elise Bur. We met and discussed issues and goals related to senior care in the UP and agreed to keep in touch on efforts to alleviate these concerns. Communicating with local partners is vital to ensure correct action is being taken, and that effort is put forth where it’s needed most. Without those connections, a lot of our efforts would be redundant.

The Northern Michigan University Center for Rural Health seeks to improve the health and well-being of Upper Peninsula residents and communities by developing collaborative partnerships that enhance the access and availability of affordable, quality healthcare services. For questions or comments related to this story, contact