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Where Dignity Lives

Ron Simpson opened his Mission Viejo board-and-care to give his wife's grandmother a home that was anything but institutional, a home that prized her individuality. She was his first tenant. The residents who have joined her--all in their 80s and 90s--are also treated like family.

March 17, 1996|BARBIE LUDOVISE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She clears out the antique desk drawer for what may be the hundredth time. Snapshots, old and faded. An electricity bill from the 1970s. The prayer card from her mother's funeral.

Catherine "Granny" Jordan, 90, removes these and other bits of history from her desk, sorting a lifetime of memories into neat, little piles. Hands trembling from Parkinson's disease, she shuffles through tattered birthday cards, old magazine clippings, notes on a 1966 bond issue. Lost, for a moment, in her past.

"She's packing to go home," Ron Simpson observes quietly from a few yards away. "She does this almost every day."

Simpson, director of Granny's Place, a six-bed board-and-care facility for the elderly, reaches over and gives Jordan's hand a gentle squeeze. He does all he can to make his residents feel at home--including his wife's grandmother. But sometimes, the concept of home proves elusive.

Simpson, 53, knew this when he opened Granny's Place last year. His grandmother-in-law had lived in only two houses her whole life until failing health forced her into a succession of nursing homes. Knowing that she would benefit from a cozier, more personable environment, Simpson decided to open his own small board-and-care facility with her in mind.

Granny's Place, located in a residential home in Mission Viejo, would offer a safe, caring environment, Simpson said. One that would be anything but institutional. Granny Jordan would be its inaugural tenant.

The six residents at Granny's Place, all in their 80s and 90s, live as a family. They eat meals at one table, take trips together to the mall, trade stories about family and friends. Guests, Simpson says, are always welcome.

Times are not always rosy, of course. The aging process sees to that. Residents feel their share of aches and pains. At least one calls out at night for her "sweetie pie."

But they do the best they can.

Board-and-care homes--also known as assisted living or residential care facilities for the elderly--offer 24-hour care for adults 60 or older. Unlike nursing homes, board-and-cares do not provide medical supervision. They're designed for people who need assistance with daily tasks such as eating, bathing and making doctor appointments, not for those who require ongoing medical care.

Orange County has 547 licensed board-and-cares, a figure that has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, says John Grant, licensing program supervisor with the state Social Services office in Santa Ana.

The industry has grown so rapidly, Grant says, that his office has had to conduct two orientation seminars per month for prospective start-ups. The meetings often attract overflow crowds, though only 10% or so ultimately apply for a license.

Simpson gave up a $90,000-per-year position with a Santa Ana medical ultrasound firm to open Granny's Place last spring. The decision wasn't difficult, he says. The ultrasound equipment he helped develop was being phased out by the company; his job would soon be phased out too. It was time for a change.

Simpson had never before envisioned running a board-and-care; he and his wife, Robin, a special-education teacher, barely knew such facilities existed. But after seeing how much Granny's health had improved after they moved her from a nursing home into a rented home with a full-time caregiver, Simpson knew a similar situation might benefit others too.

His mission, he says, was to provide a loving environment, one that would celebrate the residents' individuality, preserve their dignity. A home sweet home through good times and bad.

Sitting at Jordan's bedside, Simpson reaches for a small, framed photograph of her taken half a century ago. The photo captures a dashing brunet in shorts and a sleeveless blouse, her back to the New Jersey shore.

"Who's this, Granny?" Simpson asks gently. "Who is this gorgeous girl in the photo?"

Jordan squints at the photograph through thick eyeglasses. She pauses, then goes back to sorting photos, unable, it seems, to identify the woman she used to be.

*

There is no sign posted outside Granny's Place. No indication that this house with neatly trimmed lawn and double garage is much different than any other on Delphi Street.

The folks at Granny's like it that way. A sign would be so institutional.

But come inside. Watch your step around the wheelchairs and walkers. Plop down on the sofa under the skylights and let the sunshine warm your bones.

Hear those finches chirping in the living room? They're expecting, you know. Lunch is almost ready: fresh fruit, lemonade and a hefty serving of Tuna Helper with peas.

Although house manager Marina Toro whips up some tasty grub--Bolivian stew, chicken Devon and the house favorite, spinach-mashed potatoes--residents are often treated to dining excursions, from picnic dinners at the beach to lunch at a 1950s-style diner on the Balboa pier.

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