By Lisa Marshall, Camera Staff Writer
When Karen McMurry set out to find a new home for her elderly mother Sally McMurry 15 months ago, she knew precisely what she was looking for:
It would be small and homey — less likely to agitate Sally as her dementia progressed — yet have the cutting-edge technologies and breadth of activities of a larger, newer facility. The food would be excellent, the setting elegant, and it would be close by.
After an exhaustive search around the county, McMurry never found quite what she was looking for. So she and her husband, Gary Berg, set out to create it. More than $2.75 million and countless hours of sweat equity later, the two moved Sally and three other residents into their new room at The Academy of Bella Vista assisted living center last week.
"There wasn’t anything out there like this," said McMurry, standing in a plush new 10-bedroom, 7,000-square-foot house that feels more like a luxury vacation home than an assisted living facility.
Jointly-owned by the same four couples (including Berg and McMurry) who opened the 52-unit Academy retirement community on University Hill seven years ago, Bella Vista aims to offer the same upscale food and living quarters to people with dementia who can no longer live comfortably in a larger, less specialized facility.
Nestled in a private neighborhood nearthe University of Colorado, the radically remodeled ’50s-era ranch home features 10 individually decorated residences, each with a private bathroom and enclosed patio. The cozy living room features soaring cathedral ceilings, a large stone fireplace and a black grand piano where caregivers and guests tend to congregate for impromptu sing-alongs. The restaurant-quality kitchen — where chef John Butera helps prepare gourmet meals — is designed with wheelchair accessible granite counters where residents can pitch in on peeling potatoes and carrots if they want to. And for those who want to have a facial, massage, or manicure outside, there is a large patio surrounded by bubbling waterfalls, fruit trees, and sweeping views of the Flatirons.
Jane Stebbins, a Boulder real estate broker, says she scoured the area before placing her mother, the wife of a retired military officer, at Bella Vista last week. High-quality care in an equally high-quality setting was important to her.
"They led very upscale lives, and to have them be able to have that same quality of life, where people are paying attention to them and caring for their needs in a more personalized way, providing a certain continuum, that is important," says Stebbins. "If I were fortunate enough to be able to afford it, I would be putting my name on the waiting list tomorrow."
Cheryl Dunaway, vice president of programs for the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado Chapter, says small, private boarding homes for people with dementia first began to crop up about 15 years ago, as more adult children began searching for a home that would fit their parent’s special needs. Many didn’t find what they were looking for, so they started their own.
In many ways, a smaller setting with more one-on-one attention can be optimal for people with dementia, she says, who may not have the cognitive ability to sign up, remember, and get themselves to planned activities at a larger facility. Even larger Alzheimer’s facilities have begun to break themselves into 8 or 10-unit "pods" to make residents feel more at home.
"A person with Alzheimer’s is not necessarily going to initiate things that are good for them," Dunaway says. "They really do need additional levels of activity and oversight and guidance to help them through the day."
The downside of many private group homes, however, is that they tend to be very expensive.
"Those people who don’t have resources, who fall into the Medicaid category, usually don’t have access to that type of care," Dunaway says.
At $7,500 per month, typically paid out-of-pocket, Bella Vista obviously caters to only a small few who can afford it.
But it does differ from other private group homes in many ways.
Because it was essentially built from the ground up, the owners could install things like in-floor heating, individualized thermostats in each bathroom, and specialized baths and showers designed to reduce falls. And because of its affiliation with the Academy, it can shuttle residents there for things like chamber music concerts and special events. Two registered nurses from the Academy take shifts caring for the residents, along with three caregivers (two live-in) who are all specially trained in working with dementia patients, and 12 closed-circuit cameras offer security.
That’s important to McMurry, who was initially prompted to start looking for a new home for her mother — an Academy resident for six years — when she began to wander outside alone at night, or lose her way back to her third-floor room.
"The guard would find her sleeping in the hallway on a different floor," she said.
Fifteen months of caring for her mother gave her and her husband a unique perspective and a wealth of "on-the-job training" for their new job as managing partners at Bella Vista. Still, after having her mother at home so long, it was painful for them to move her out.
"I was dreading it," McMurry says. But looking out upon her mom now, sipping potato leek soup at a sun-drenched table, and chatting with three other women her age, McMurry says she is finally at ease:
"It’s just been wonderful to see her back in the company of people her own age, just chatting away."
Contact Lisa Marshall at (303) 473-1357 or firstname.lastname@example.org.