Solana Beach resident Catherine McAllister thrives on enhancing the lives of seniors


By Diane Y. Welch

A quiet serenity greets guests who enter the lobby of La Vida Del Mar, an elegant assisted-living retirement community in Solana Beach reminiscent of a five-star hotel with its comfortable furnishings, fine art and soothing music.

Although it resembles the Ritz-Carlton, this is a permanent home for many local retirees. “We are gentlemen and ladies serving gentlemen and ladies,” said Catherine McAllister, program director, who keeps residents busy and engaged in life.

She joined the La Vida Del Mar family almost 18 years ago. 2012 marks 20 years of McAllister working in the senior industry. It is both her passion and her pleasure to serve the retired community.

McAllister was approached by Michael Grust, president and CEO of Senior Resource Group, which is the management company of La Vida Del Mar, and was asked to join the staff in 1994. So she jumped right in and has been swimming ever since, she said.

In an environment where a business takes pride in its product, right down to the level of how the residents are served, it is no surprise that the activities it offers match that same attention to detail and quality.

“We offer a comprehensive program. There are five realms that we include: social, spiritual, physical, vocational and intellectual. My job is – and more and more as our residents age in place – not only to provide excursions like visits to the North Coast Repertory Theatre and the San Diego Symphony, but to also bring the world into our facility,” McAllister explained. Recently, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute came to give a lecture to residents. There are art classes, and reading groups facilitated by the local library and more.

La Vida Del Mar has a gallery in the lobby which serves to display local artists’ work on a monthly rotation and has close relationships with several local churches and schools. A recent caroling visit by students from St. James’ school turned into an impromptu storytelling activity.

When an emergency lockdown prevented the children from returning to their school, McAllister improvised and suggested the children snuggle down in the library and listen to their teacher read from one of the many children’s book on the shelves. “They were completely unaware of the problems that their school was facing,” said McAllister. “It was fun for them and wonderful for our residents.”

A longtime local resident, McAllister has a Scottish ancestry of powerful women that runs along her maternal line. Her grandmother was born in a small town just outside of Edinburgh into a family of Presbyterian missionaries who moved to China in the 1800s. McAllister’s mother, one of five children, was born there. Family members witnessed first-hand the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese occupation and World War II.

“They saw a lot of drama,” said McAllister, a New York native who grew up in Long Island.

McAllister’s mother, a general practitioner and a gerontologist, attended Wellesley College, then put herself through medical school.

“This was back in the day when men were very angry that women were taking jobs away from them,” McAllister commented.

A Yale graduate who then attended Columbia Law School, her father contracted polio just two years after marrying her mother, when the couple lived in Indonesia. They returned to the USA and her father regained the use of his arms but never walked again. “So the challenge in my immediate family was a dad in a wheelchair,” said McAllister.

McAllister’s own higher education was in a small private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania – Allegheny College. She entered as a French major, but graduated as a calligraphy arts and design major. “Here I was, a calligrapher, saying, ‘Here I am world, I’m ready to be hired!’” she joked.

Failed employment searches brought McAllister out to San Diego. She worked for the Fine Art store for 10 years, then made the transition to marriage, while working as the Legacy and Planned Giving Director for the American Cancer Society. Motherhood took center stage as she raised Katie, now 24, an arts major, and Patrick, now 20, a sophomore in the U.S. Naval Academy.

McAllister views La Vida Del Mar as, “a microcosm of what’s out there, globally. Our residents range from former farmers to supreme court judges and everything in between. It’s a wonderful potpourri of people.”

In building personal relationships with each resident, McAllister – who like her strong female ancestors has a deep faith in God – is even more firm in her belief that everyone has a gift. “The important thing is to use your gift in good service, it’s as simple as that. I love working with seniors and my job is to bring out their gifts whether that’s the love of art or laughter.”

And while that is McAllister’s job it is so much more. “It is my God-given gift,” she said.