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A Turn for the Better

The Once-Troubled Country Villa Plaza in Santa Ana Is Now the Only Publicly Funded Facility in Orange County With a Spotless Record


SANTA ANA — In a small room at Country Villa Plaza nursing home, Jane Seabold, 57, lies in bed with an array of fruit juices and water on a tray in front of her.

"Minimum daily requirements," she said with a weary smile.

Seabold's face and arms were puffy. An oxygen tube snaked down her nose. But her hair was freshly colored, her nails manicured. A personal computer was set up in one corner of her room.

Despite having advancing breast and lung cancer, Seabold had finished writing a book: a fable on endangered species titled "The Wolf and the Sloth." And she had started work on a book in rhyme about dinosaurs.

When Seabold learned that she would have to go to a nursing home, "I expected to fall into a bed of thorns," she said. Instead, "I fell into a bed of roses."

Seabold died in late November. Through her final months, the home helped her hold on to a sense of self.

This year, Country Villa was the only publicly funded nursing home in Orange County to receive a spotless report from government inspectors.

Administrator Rachel Bennett, hired in 1996 after Country Villa received bad marks, said, "I don't have a fancy answer. You just have to see each resident as an individual, always."

Rather than be frustrated by the hundreds of state and federal regulations governing nursing homes, Bennett made them a minimum goal. "You have to . . . grasp for a higher calling and make it a great place for people to live," she said.

People still suffer at Country Villa. Elderly people sometimes cry out in pain. Residents with dementia slump in their wheelchairs as they are fed. And people die.

But the facility has seen remarkable improvement since September 1996, when inspectors found problems that included lack of infection control, improper assessments of bedsores and untreated injuries. The owners, Stephen and Diane Reissman of Marina del Rey, called on Bennett, who has a track record of turning around troubled homes.

Bennett said she came because she felt the Reissmans, who also own 16 other nursing homes, were willing to invest money and perhaps incur short-term monetary losses to improve care. In Orange County, which has many empty nursing home beds, that is a must, she said. Private care at Country Villa costs from $3,000 to $4,000 a month, but most of the residents are covered through government subsidies.

She made some top personnel changes and provided leadership for nursing aides, rehabilitation and maintenance staff whose demanding jobs have high potential for burnout.

She instituted strict rules. For example, whoever is closest to a call light when it goes off will answer it at once, "even if it's the fifth time . . . in the last five minutes."

Bennett's staff has adopted her compassionate, individualized approach. Rather than forcibly restrain residents who fall often, rehabilitation director Michelle Linde tries to find out why they are falling.

"Maybe they're trying to go to the bathroom. Maybe they're restless or uncomfortable," she said. "If they're sliding out of their wheelchairs, maybe they want to touch the floor. Let's adapt our way of working with them."

On a recent Monday, an aggressive bingo game was in progress in the dining room. In the recreation room, the activities director led a lively line dance as an elderly blind man played a keyboard with gusto. The room was filled with laughter.

One resident who had played chess daily at a Long Beach park before coming to Country Villa missed his pastime. So staff members placed an ad in a local paper, and now half a dozen chess partners come to him.

For some, Country Villa has been a welcome change.

Randall Burleson, 73, a retired Huntington Beach electrical engineer, had carried 250 pounds on his 6-foot-2-inch frame for most of his adult life. After almost three months in another facility, he weighed just 143 pounds, according to medical records, and could not sit up, walk or lift his head.

When Joanna Burleson saw her father last summer, she wept. Then she arranged for his transfer.

When she pulled up to Country Villa with her father, staff members "came right out to the car, three or four people, and they were so kind," she said, crying again as she recalled that day in September. "They asked him if he could move. They carried him out. They were so gentle."

A doctor called by Country Villa discovered that Burleson was anemic and gave him a transfusion of four pints of blood. The next day, Burleson's appetite returned.

Within three months he had gained 30 pounds. He was strong enough to stand up from his wheelchair, walk to his daughter and hug her.

"I love it here. I've had experience with another place, and it was not pleasant," he said. He still isn't crazy about nursing home food, he said, but a friend sneaks him orange jelly candies.

"Outside of the food, I can't think of a thing that's wrong," he said. "Look at the floor--I could eat off of it."

Of the staff, he said, "they seem to really like each other. I don't know how they do it, but they do."

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