When Help Is Needed

Assisted living offers much more than care—it offers a life

by Nancy Maes

When Chicagoan Laura Kimmel started looking at retirement communities in the city for her parents, Saul and Simmie Liberman, they weren’t interested in making the move. The octogenarians were adamant about staying in the house in Lincolnshire they had called home for more than 30 years. Kimmel’s father was in good health, but her mother was having difficulty getting out and about ever since she had valve replace-ment surgery. But when Mrs. Liberman experienced a fall, the incident made the couple realize that the time had come to accept their daughter’s suggestion.

In June, the Libermans moved into The Hallmark, located on Lake Shore Drive in Lincoln Park. “I had looked at other places that were depressing and felt like they were for older people to go and die,” Kimmel says. “The Hallmark looked like a place for older people to live. It’s the best decision we ever made. They couldn’t be happier.”

They’ve made new friends and have an apartment on the 16th floor with a beautiful view of Lake Michigan. Their new home is decorated with many of the paintings Mr. Liberman created over the years, and his artwork has also been hung in one of The Hallmark’s community rooms.

A place like the Hallmark was the ideal solution because it is an independent living community that offers a wide array of healthcare options onsite that include assisted living services to help Mrs. Liberman.

“The arrangement gives my dad peace of mind to know that my mom isn’t sitting alone in the apartment with no one checking on her when he wants to go to a museum or a movie,” Kimmel says.

Mike Ratchford, executive director of The Hallmark, says retirees today are looking for stimulating social activities and healthcare. They will find both at The Hallmark, which is one of more than 565 senior living communities in the United States owned and operated by Brookdale.

This kind of community living lets residents join active clubs and groups that venture out to the museums, go gourmet at Chicago’s critically acclaimed restaurants, join The Hallmark’s theater company or chorus and more. Some residents participate in meaningful programs that give back to the community, such as the Sit and Knit group, which makes booties and blankets for premature babies at a nearby hospital. And there’s the Working in the Schools project, whose members read to children at a local elementary school. There are also continuing education courses liked computer workshops and classes on Greek tragedies offered onsite by the University of Chicago.

Ratchford points out that The Hallmark also focuses on fitness programs with state-of-the-art senior-friendly exercise equipment and other activities to promote good health. There is a staff of home nurses to assist with healthcare needs and physical, occupational and speech therapists for in-house rehabilitation.

The healthcare assistance is not one-size-fits-all, but individualized to meet each resident’s needs. Residents who live in their own apartments are still as independent as possible and enjoy a tailor-made stimulating quality of life. There is an intimate dining room used for the daily meals, plenty of onsite small group activities and social hours that include entertainment, hors d’oeuvres and wine.

This continuum of care available in one place is becoming more and more common. Jennifer Avila, executive director of The Kenwood of Lake View, another Brookdale facility in Chicago that offers independent and assisted living options, says, “Fifteen years ago you were either completely independent in a retirement community or you were in a nursing home. There was nothing in between. Now there are so many more niche offerings for people whose needs change as they age. Many steps of healthcare assistance are now available, so they can age in place, stay close to their new friends and not have to move again.”

The Clare at Water Tower, an elegant high-rise retirement community in the heart of the city’s cultural life, also offers independent residential living as well as skilled nursing, rehabilitation therapy, assisted living and care for those who are experiencing memory loss.

“Continuing retirement care communities are a growing trend because Baby Boomers tend to be planners,” says The Clare at Water Tower Executive, Director Michel Desjardin. “They want to know that they are in control of their decisions. So more and more of them are interested in understanding where they are going to be, if and when they need additional care.”

Desjardin points out that activities and healthcare are individualized to the residents’ needs. “We try to understand the background and history of those in the early or middle stages of memory loss so that we can tailor programs to their interests,” he explains.

“We have a resident who was a clothing designer and one who was a building inspector, so we tailor programs for each one to focus on those areas. We also try to match up residents with people they might get along with, and a lot of good friendships have been made—even for residents in memory support.”

Avila points out a few guidelines to help in choosing the right place for aging adults to enjoy a comfortable, enriching lifestyle. She says, “Don’t just look at what is appealing today, such as the size of the apartment, the amenities, the quality of the food and the location, but look forward five or ten years to the kinds of services you are going to need as you get older.”

Avila also suggests that families ask to see the Illinois Department of Public Health survey of assisted living facilities and spend time going over it with the director. If there were infractions, they should ask the director to explain what can be done to correct them. In addition she says, “I recommend that families meet the caregivers, the certified nurses and the assistant nurses who are going to be coming in and out of their parents’ apartments providing hands-on care and assistance because they are the most important people in their day-to-day lives.”

Avila adds that it is a good idea to talk to some of the residents of the facility, especially ones who have moved in recently, to find out about their experiences. She says it is also helpful to attend some of the activities to see how the staff interacts with the residents.

Ratchford underscores Avila’s advice, “I’ve learned from being in the business for 14 years that you can have a beautiful, well-maintained building, but good staffing that is experienced, well-trained, service oriented and caring is what makes the community.”

Desjardin points out the advantages of continuing retirement care communities, “study after study indicates the benefits of living in a community. Socialization not only helps maintain mental health but also physical health because residents have more stimulation and better nutrition than they would have being home alone with a caregiver.”

And good health leads to a good life and good living.

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Published in Chicago Health Summer 2011