Porter Hills held an open house Thursday to show off plans to turn its Meadowlark Retirement Community in Sparta into a “household environment” with a $1.2 million renovation project slated to start in the spring.
“If my mom lived in this memory care, I’d have the ability to go in and open the fridge and find something to share with my mother,” said Ingrid Weaver, Porter Hills’ vice president of business development.
“It takes all the ideas of home and re-engineers the building to have those components.”
The decision to rethink the facility comes nearly two decades after Porter Hills acquired Meadowlark in 1998 from Apple Tree Development Co., which opened the community in 1988 to help provide a place for Sparta-area residents to retire.
“They were not in senior services,” Weaver said. “They were folks local to Sparta and wanted to do something good for the seniors in Sparta so they could stay in the area.”
Weaver said Meadowlark is an outstanding facility with great staff and residents, but it does have some shortcomings as it’s not designed for seniors with cognitive impairments. Among the main issues are long corridors with many doors leading to various rooms and exits, which can be very confusing to those with dementia, Weaver said.
“We found, unfortunately, we’d have to ask folks with dementia to leave and help them find a more suitable environment for them,” she said. “Although we understand dementia very well, the environment was impeding our ability to provide the type of service we felt was appropriate.”
Porter Hills decided it needed to update the facility to better service residents with dementia and ensure they could stay there for life.
Crucial to the household model are residential-quality finishes replacing institutional, hospital-like finishes and the flow of a traditional home. Guests walk into a foyer, and are surrounded by a dining room, kitchen and family room, all of which are accessible to everyone.
The entire community will be broken down from a community of 57 apartments to three households, a memory care house for 10, assisted living for 20 and independent living for 26.
“Although there is no definitive result, virtually every study that has looked at resident and staff outcomes related to size of resident grouping are more positive with smaller resident groupings,” Weaver said. “A smaller, home-like environment is better and empowers people to get around and be more engaged with others.”
The smaller size and intuitive layout of the households will make it easier for those with cognitive impairments to find their way around. Residents don’t have to look down long corridors to figure out where the dining room is at dinner time.
Weaver said the arrangement makes more sense in terms of visitors, too, as conversations don’t have to occur in bedrooms.
Part of the change will be turning the retirement community business model on its head, Weaver said, empowering the Meadowlark residents. She said most retirement communities are designed around production and efficiency, but Meadowlark will allow residents to define the rhythm of the day, and the staff will be trained to encourage residents with meaningful activities.
“In traditional assisted living, there might be a schedule of bingo at 10, bible study after lunch and movie night in the evening,” she said. “We may still have some of those to bring groups together, but it’s not our primary focus. Our primary focus is what each individual elder enjoys doing.”
With cognitive disorders, Weaver said it is important to allow each person to live life the way they’d like. Instead of forcing new activities on residents, they can choose to do familiar activities such as laundry, baking, cooking or gardening.
“Oftentimes, you’re still able to do those things you’ve done your whole life because they’re natural,” Weaver said.
The $1.2 million needed for renovations has been secured, but donations are being sought to help fund initial and ongoing staff training and a benevolence fund that will prevent residents from being forced out of the facility.
There is no financial assistance program in Michigan for those living in assisted living facilities, and because quality staff and care costs money, Weaver said Porter Hills will do its best to keep residents in need funded.
“Some people, by no choice of their own, outlive their resources,” she said. “We have established and want to build a fund so we never have to ask one of our residents to be uprooted for financial reasons, so they can stay with us for the rest of their lives.”