By John Gonzales

Dr. Womack handed me his 9 mm German Luger. I’d never seen one up close, much less held one. He told me he was having trouble loading it as he poured the bullets into my other hand. Pushing past the initial shock, I assured him that our maintenance director, Tony, could fix it.

“How long do you think it will take?” he asked. Then ominously, “I need it back right away.”

I did not ask, “Why?” Instead I said, “As soon as possible. Let me check with him right now.”

Dr. Womack nodded approvingly and sat down at his usual corner table in the dining room. He often showed up for lunch and dinner with plastic wrap Scotch-taped over his nostrils. It was the best defense against the noxious fumes being pumped into the building by aliens. Housekeeping staff regularly complained of difficulty dusting his apartment because of the aluminum foil lining the walls.

Dr. Womack had pronounced dementia … and a gun.

I discreetly quick-stepped the weapon to the maintenance office and told Tony what had happened. He was strangely unfazed and placed the gun and bullets in his top drawer and locked it. He looked up at me from his desk, resumed typing, and nonchalantly said, “OK, just tell him we had to order parts for it, and whenever he asks about it, tell him we’re still waiting for them to be delivered.”

Over the next few weeks, Dr. Womack grew frustrated with the delays — I became more creative about the causes. Eventually, he just stopped asking about it.

One evening, while our CEO was meeting with our community manager, Dr. Womack started yelling at him from the reception desk, accusing him of creeping into his apartment the night before, rummaging through his drawers, and stealing all his underwear. Listening to Dr. Womack’s shouted accusations, highly detailed description of the missing undergarments, and passionate demand for their return, I began to feel persuaded that our CEO may have somehow been involved in the theft of the unmentionables.

My Grandmother

During college, my work experience was exclusively waiting tables. I answered an ad for waitstaff at this upscale retirement community without understanding what it would entail (the absence of “tips” being the most surprising). That was 37 years ago, before the term, “assisted living” existed. Before there were any memory care communities. Before there were many alternatives to skilled care facilities.

Just a year before taking this job, I had watched my grandmother pass slowly and painfully from pronounced Alzheimer’s disease. She faded slowly in front of my eyes — in her own home initially, silently wandering from room to room without purpose or direction during family gatherings. I remember my grandfather downplaying her odd behavior and laughing it off. We all played along.

Taking care of her physical needs became increasingly difficult for the family, until “that” decision was made, and she was moved into a “facility.” I was shielded from her reaction but gleaned from overheard phone conversations between my mom and her sisters that it did not go well. She existed without quality of life in a small, poorly run state nursing facility — the only place available to our lower-middle income family. It was sad and tragic, and I despised seeing her deteriorate there. I was helpless to do anything — we all were.

Dr. Womack and his family were fortunate enough to have the resources available for him to live in an upscale retirement community — albeit one that was also ill-equipped to meet his cognitive needs.

I didn’t recognize the connection between these two experiences — one personal and unavoidable, the other by happenstance. The impact of both, however, was providential. It was this combination of life experiences that drove my decision to make senior living my career.

The Opportunity

I am blessed to have been given the opportunity to serve our nation’s seniors for the last 37 years and to have had — at least a small — impact on our industry. We now have options that did not exist then — for people like my grandmother and Dr. Womack alike.

I firmly believe the opportunity to improve upon what we have built remains for us all.

What will you do with yours?

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