Reinventing the Elder Care Experience

When it comes to finding an assisted living for aging parents, most people want a place that will provide high-quality care. But what does that mean exactly? For Charles Johnson, proprietor of Bel Air Assisted Living, this means keeping things small.  He aims to provide residents an experience that feels as if they are living in their own homes where they might receive care from family members who really knew them and cared about them.

“My grandparents lived with me and my parents in their final years, and I got to see what really good care looks like by watching my mom,” says Johnson.

When he took over ownership of Bel Air Assisted living, he knew he wanted to reinvent what elder care looks like to match what he had seen when he was growing up. His vision has been to create the assisted living version of a comfortable boutique hotel, providing a concierge level of care.

To achieve this, Johnson has purposefully kept Bel Air Assisted Living intimate. The residents’ private rooms with en suite bathrooms, along with all common areas, are on one floor.

“It can make a real difference for someone with limited mobility to be able to just walk down a short hallway to get to dinner or activities,” Johnson says.

Memory Care

The same goes for individuals with early memory changes—if there are no elevators or long hallways, there is less of a barrier to participating in the center’s daily activities and special events.

Because of the small size, things can be very personalized.  “Our chef knows how people like their coffee, who wants their eggs scrambled, who is an early riser and who likes to sleep in, and she really likes to accommodate everyone.  You just won’t find that in a larger place” says Johnson.

Meals are an especially important part of quality of life for the elderly at Bel Air Assisted Living.  “We try to have things that are delicious and taste just like home. A lot of our residents gain a little weight when they come to us, and I think that says a lot.”

Hands On Care

Most importantly, though, Johnson believes the key to his residents’ happiness is providing more hands on care and responsiveness than what’s available at other assisted livings.

“The bottom line is that we just have a lot more staff taking care of our residents, and that is a big priority for me,” says Johnson. “This is not the kind of place where your mother is going to wait an hour to get a Tylenol when she needs one,” he says.

Most larger assisted livings (those with upwards of 50 rooms) have one caregiver taking care of 15-20 residents, and wait times for care can be long because the staff has to care for such a large number of people. Bel Air Assisted Living typically assigns only six to eight residents to each caregiver, which is about 3 times better than larger facilities. “It’s the type of care similar to what mother gave my grandparents,” Johnson says. “I’m really proud about that.”

And it’s not just about medical needs. “Loneliness is one of the biggest issues for the elderly,” says Johnson. “But we have enough staff to ensure that caregivers are always available to spend time with residents. If they want to sit on the porch for an hour, a caregiver can sit with them. ‘Always be with a resident,’ is our mantra.”

Despite its size, Bel Air Assisted Living also provides every service that larger assisted livings provide, and then some. Most residents opt to have Dr. Brian Wallace, a geriatric physician, provide their medical care, and he comes on site regularly, in addition to his ongoing coordination with nursing staff.  Physical therapy, occupational therapy, podiatry, wound care, dental care, mobile x-ray, lab services and hospice care can all be provided in house, and Fallston pharmacy delivers the residents’ medications.

Staying Engaged And Active

Of course, keeping residents’ minds and bodies engaged is essential, too. That’s why Bel Air Assisted Living offers a wide variety of daily activities such as news reading, board games, puzzles, crafts, exercise, flower arranging, music activities, salon and barber services, and many more. Residents are also often treated to visits from the community, such as the local girl scout troop, choral groups, the library, or members of St. Margaret’s church that is just across the street. A local “Mommy and Me” group brings their infants and toddlers frequently, and the local chapter of Pets on Wheels stops by regularly—a real favorite.

But the weekend is when the real fun takes place. Centered around family of all ages, there are special activities that can involve everyone. This includes things like pumpkin painting for Halloween, cooking decorating, watching football or baseball games, movie matinees complete with popcorn and other seasonal events. The idea is to keep families connected through shared activities and create special memories during visits.

“We take a lot of pride in working collaboratively with the residents and their families,” says Johnson. “And, of course, visitors are always welcome, 24/7. We love to have families here.”

Supportive Management And Staff

The staff at Bel Air Assisted Living also focuses on supporting the resident-to-resident social interactions with each other, and residents can really get to know each other well in the smaller setting.  Because the town of Bel Air is such a close-knit community, residents will often find that they already have connections when they meet, including a recent resident who joined the community and was happy to reconnect with a childhood friend from her street growing up—they are neighbors again, just down the hall from each other.

Thanks to Johnson’s efforts to reinvent assisted living, and the supportive management style of assisted living manager Danielle Schokett, his employees have tended to stay around a lot longer than what’s typical at larger facilities. Caregivers at assisted livings typically have a 53 percent turnover rate annually, but Bel Air Assisted Living actually has a backlog of applicants who want to leave other facilities where there can be a high rate of burnout. Once they transfer to Bel Air Assisted Living, they tend stay a long time. In fact, they even recently celebrated one staff member’s 20-year service anniversary.

“My staff value the opportunity to provide a level of care they feel proud of. They are really dedicated to what they do. And Danielle and I value and support them. That’s what makes us such a good team,” says Johnson.

Bel Air Assisted Living’s lead nurse Sandy Greene RN and her colleague June Mullhausen, RN together have been providing geriatric care for more than 30 years. Since joining the Bel Air Assisted Living team, they have been impressed with how well the staff knows the residents and how staff are able to pick up on small changes that could be early warning signs of bigger problems.

“Danielle and the caregivers loop us in quickly so that we can coordinate next steps with our doctor. It really helps to have such stable staff, and management that supports high staffing levels,” said Greene. “They have time to pay attention and they know when to make phone calls and discuss things with me, and that’s a great thing.”

A Place Where Residents feel At Home

But it all comes back to providing residents a place where they can feel at home. The 8,000 square foot house offers a ¾ acre front lawn with gardens and an authentic front porch where you will often see residents out enjoying the nice weather. Johnson knows all the residents and their families personally and he expects his staff to care for the residents just like he saw his mother caring for his own grandparents.

“Because of our size and the way we’re structured, residents can live as independently as they want to,” says Johnson. “Our staff is right here to provide whatever extra support is needed.”

And by taking this approach, Bel Air Assisted Living has reinvented elder care, right here in Harford County.