Jean Cannon, the Executive Director for
Aspen House, first suggested a day in early April of 2011 for
me to come up to meet her. As the day came closer, she asked
to reschedule, as she needed to attend a funeral for one of
her residents who had recently passed. Of course, I understood.
Jean and I had spoken briefly about what
we wanted to talk about when we met, and one of the things that
interests me is what facility administrators and/or owners see
as being the rewards of operating
an assisted living facility, and what some of the challenges
may be. Hearing about the passing of one of her residents, it
occurred to me that one of the greatest challenges must be saying
goodbye to someone that you most certainly have developed a
strong bond with. I am sure most facility administrators and
employees become quite attached to, and emotionally close with
most of their residents. I asked Jean if this was one of the
"challenges" (for lack of a better word) - and she
very much agreed. For someone like Jean, who I could tell is
inherently a very caring personality, the passing of a resident
would require time for grieving and processing.
I asked Jean how this type of event affects
her staff, and she explained that it is equally hard on her
caregivers and employees. I was very impressed that Jean took
the initiative to have a hospice expert come to the facility
after this event to help educate her staff on end-of-life care
and issues, and to help them cope with the recent passing.
The day that I drove up to her facility
(after we had rescheduled), I was trying to imagine what my
visit would be like. I had, of course, visited a number of assisted
living facilities before, however, this would be the first facility
that I have visited that is solely dedicated to Alzheimer's
and memory care type-residents. Facilities of this nature sometimes
have an unfortunate stigma of being perhaps unhappy, stale,
isolated and un stimulating environments. I was hoping that
this would not be the case - and thankfully, it was quite the
I easily found the facility, and noticed
that every guest has to ring a bell to have a staff person open
the door - something that I highly appreciated. Security is
of paramount importance in assisted living facilities,
especially when you are caring for residents with memory disorders.
I see news alerts and articles almost daily about residents
getting lost, or wandering off-property, or uninvited guests
slipping into facilities - Aspen House had obviously spent much
time and effort to cover all of it's bases on this front. The
home, in every respect was safe and secure. If a window is opened,
an alarm sounds; doors to supplies or medications that should
be locked are locked, and there are highly visible and uniformed
staff with name tags in every part of the house. The perimeter
of the facility is fenced, so there is really only one main
entry-exit, which is highly monitored. Jean's husband Dave greeted
me at the front door - Aspen House is a family-owned facility,
as you might have guessed.
Jean greeted me in her office, and we
spent a few minutes chatting, and meeting a few of her family
members, and staff. Her grandson was with her at the time, which
was neat for me to see. For a 5 year old to feel comfortable,
happy and welcome in an memory care facility is quite something.
It seemed like the residents really appreciated and enjoyed
having him around!
Jean then asked if I wanted a tour, which started in the front
foyer near her office. As we made our way down the first hallway,
I could see a short way down a number of residents participating
in a group activity in a large, bright, and tastefully decorated
common room. I saw the staff interacting with the residents,
engaging them with games, conversations and questions.
Much to my surprise, and relief - most
all of the residents I met on our tour seemed happy...and happy
to be there! I saw countless smiles, and received so many warm
greetings from so many of Jean's residents, that it was a little
disarming for me. As we made the rounds, a fellow in a wheelchair
stopped us and asked Jean for some help with a personal issue,
and Jean stopped, and took the time to patiently discuss the
matter with him. This gentleman then shook my hand, and explained
that he was an electrician of some sort, and was very handy.
As we continued our tour, Jean explained
that the layout of the inside of the main part facility goes
in a circle. This was by design, so the residents could easily
get some daily walking in, and also to encourage more interaction
with her residents. Within the circle, there are various rooms
- restrooms, storage rooms, showers, etc. - all of which were
extremely clean and well organized.
Jean mentioned another 'challenge' at
this point - which is storage. She said if she had to do it
over again, she would have allotted more room for storage. From
my perspective, there wasn't a visible problem at all with this
- the facility was not cluttered in the least (at least what
I could see), and was spotless from a cleanliness/sanitation
perspective. I can imagine this is another very important ongoing
task at any facility, especially if you potentially have residents
with weakened immune systems.
There are two wings of the facility which
are dedicated to resident rooms. Most of the rooms have the
capacity for two residents, and Aspen House encourages couples/spouses.
The rooms are lovely, and most share a Jack and Jill bathroom.
All of the rooms were very clean, well kept, and many of them
had the resident's personal touches added to them.
I asked if I could take a few photos of
one of the rooms, so we went down to Wanda's room, which was
labeled outside with a sign in very big letters. This, I assumed
helps the residents to remember which room is theirs. Wanda
was delightful - so quick to smile, and was very open and receptive
to me. I took a photo of her sitting on her bed, smiling. She
then glanced to the wall, and within seconds, started to cry.
It was such an unexpected moment for me, and at first, I wondered
if I had done something wrong. Thankfully, I had not. Wanda,
looking at photos of her husband (who has passed) on the wall,
was suddenly grief stricken by his memory. Jean immediately
went over to her, and put her arm around Wanda, and walked her
back into the hallway, comforting her.
I have learned is that most of the residents at Aspen House
spend most of their day out in the common areas of the facility
- rarely do they spend any free time in their rooms. This is
mostly by the choice of the residents, but is encouraged by
Aspen House. It serves the purpose to keep the residents socially
engaged, and to help fight loneliness and sadness - as Wanda
was feeling at the moment.
As soon as Wanda was back out around her
housemates, her contagious smile returned!
Jean has a wonderful way of interacting
with her residents. At any given moment, Jean has countless
things pulling her attention in a million different directions.
Running her facility, and business is an exercise of constantly
being asked questions by her staff, fielding phone calls, talking
to families, attending to visitors and taking people the likes
of myself on a facility tour - all at the same time. However,
when a resident stops her in the hallway to ask her a question,
or simply for some attention - Jean can quickly switch gears
to be fully present, genuine, and nurturing - whether it is
to stop to rub lotion into the hands of a resident who needs
comforting (Jean says that many of her residents find great
comfort by the simple act of having lotion rubbed into their
hands), or to answer a question about what's for lunch, or to
simply offer a hug to someone who is feeling sad, or lonely.
Jean says that "touch" and hugs are so important for
people with memory disorders. Judging by way she handled the
brief moment of grief with Wanda, I would have to attest to
It's a rare talent to be able switch from
the administrator persona to that of a caregiver on a moment's
notice, but Jean seems to be able to do it easily at all times.
Jean, and her staff at the Aspen House
have enormously complicated jobs - day in and day out. The art
of running an assisted living / memory care facility isn't only
about keeping the residents fed, clean, safe and out of trouble.
It also involves keeping the 'spark of life' alive with her
many residents - not what I would call an easy thing for anyone
to do with residents of diminishing mental returns and capacities.
However, I witnessed first-hand that so many of Jean's residents
still have that wonderful and childlike twinkle in their eye
- reminding me that there is a human being behind every label
and diagnosis. I was asked genuine questions by her residents
about my life - my family, my son, my business, schooling -
the list goes on. As I made the rounds on the tour, I was invited
to "come back and chat" a number of times. I only
wish I had had the time!
As our tour and interview was coming to
a close, I asked myself if there was anything at all that I
could be critical about. There was nothing. This isn't to say
that Jean has been flawless in her time running Aspen House
- she'll be the first to tell you that. Of course, there have
been some misfires along the way. For example, Jean told me
that they spent a good deal of money on several walk-in bathtubs,
which almost never get used. She says that many residents with
memory disorders are frightened by them when they see the rising
water, and the intimidating size of the tubs. Now the tubs are
mostly used for towel storage - so not a total loss!
One of my favorite things that Jean said
a number of times is "it's a good idea until it's not."
Her facility and home is an ever-evolving entity, and Jean very
obviously fine-tunes it every day, and treats it as such. If
there is something that isn't working in terms of menu items,
they change the menu. If there is a certain time of day that
her residents seem to always get restless, or out of sorts,
they try to figure out why (in one case, it was a certain time
of day where they did a staffing change that upset some of her
residents- something that she has addressed), or if a resident
is afraid to take a bath - they'll do a shower instead.
Jean was so gracious in sharing her expertise
with me. She is a true expert - in an academic sense, she has
received her assisted living certification from the State of
Colorado, as well as a business degree from CSU. From a human
standpoint, I was very taken with her ability to ongoing and
genuine compassion and tireless positive energy towards her
residents. She very obviously and transparently cares for each
and every one of them very deeply.
Where might you find Jean on Christmas
Eve? At Aspen House, of course with her family....
As I finished packing up my camera equipment
to leave for the day, I thanked Jean for spending so much time
with me. I gave her a quick hug. This brief, final interaction
with her told me more about her than our previous few hours
together - that her purpose in this life is to be a caregiver,
and that she has truly found her calling at Aspen House.
- Article and Video produced by the
staff at Assisted Living Directory, May 2011