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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Senior Set: "There May be Snow on the Roof, but There's Fire in the Kitchen"

By Briana Kidde

The Activities Room is nearly empty. Lornie, who is originally from North Dakota, sits waiting in one of the cushioned wooden chairs. He’s a rather tall man, with broad shoulders and eyes that are always observing. Bill, another older gentleman, slowly paces with his walker to a chair on the other side of the volleyball net that is held up by orange traffic dividers. Pam, who works within the Wellness Department at Park Terrace Assisted Living in Rancho Santa Margarita, scurries about the large room, pushing four chairs around into rows on each side.

Three other residents start to trickle in- Mary, Pearl and Bernice. Mary sits a seat over from Lornie, while Pearl and Bernice, who has a walker like Bill's, take seats across from them. It’s 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon, the time when Balloon Volleyball is often played. However, only five people have shown up, a rare occasion for one of Park Terrace’s most popular activities. Pam even goes so far as to say “it is a first.” She turns on music, and gets a red balloon for the game. Pam notes that a red balloon is used because Pearl can see that color the best.

Since there are an odd number of players, I join in on Lornie’s and Mary’s side, sitting behind them, with each side forming a pyramid shape. Across from me, Bernice puts her game face on- a look that means this Balloon Volleyball is not a game for amateurs. Her mouth is set in a straight line, her eyes piercing her opponents through her big, thick glasses. She is ready. I ask Bill before the game starts what he thinks of Balloon Volleyball, and I get the short but sweet answer of “Oh, it’s fun.”

The balloon is “served” into the air, as everyone tries to hit it. Pam plays referee, trying to make sure the balloon doesn’t touch the ground, or gets the balloon for the players when it is out of their reach. All five of them stay sitting, reaching their arms up when they need to hit it. They all hit gently, except for Lornie, who seems to be playing for the win- even though they aren’t keeping score this game. Lornie appears to be a natural competitor, serving the balloon a little too hard and hitting Bernice in the face. Bernice responds with a frown, as Lornie chuckles to himself. The first balloon pops, almost as if someone’s hands were pressing too hard against the latex. Pam reaches for another red balloon in the cupboard, off to the back of the room, and blows it up with a portable air pump. The game continues, but Pam needs to go supervise the church service that overlaps Balloon Volleyball. I become the referee.

Lornie continues to hit Bernice, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not. Bill, sitting in the back row, starts to get fed up. He tells Lornie to “quit it,” as does Pearl. Lornie just chuckles for a moment, and then it’s back to the game. Everything is silent in the room except the background music, which ranges from classic big band music to “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye. Every few moments, Bill quips to Bernice, “Get it Bernice,” as she sometimes doesn’t realize the balloon is near her.

Pearl, despite her impaired sight, hits the ball more aggressively, passing it over to Lornie’s side and surpassing him. She chuckles to herself, a sort of payback for his tough serves.

Bernice specifically has a distinct way of serving her balloons. She’ll grasp the end of the balloon and place the other hand on the top of it. She pauses there, looking across the fence. Still pinching the balloon, she slowly raises it in the air and gives it almost a tap.

The competition continues for an hour, with no count being kept and barely any words spoken. Bill asks Bernice if they want to call it quits. They’re tired, working twice as hard with fewer people.

The shortage in players affects the game, which according to Bernice, “it’s better with more people.”

Pam returns from church, asking everyone if they had a good game. They all nod their heads in agreement.

Pearl, Bill, Mary, Bernice and Lornie are regulars at this Balloon Volleyball. They play almost every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the same time. They end their intense practice session with head and neck stretches. Bernice is tired, and Pearl complains her neck hurts. So Pam leads them in their exercises, telling them to turn their heads left to right, up and down. Afterwards they slowly make their way out of the Activities Room to rest, to gossip, to sit and watch people walk by in the lobby.

Bernice reaches her hand up to hit the ball in Balloon Volleyball.


The Activities Room that hosts Balloon Volleyball, bowling, and other events is located in the main building of Park Terrace. It's a bright, cream-colored room with one wall covered in mirrors and French doors off to the right, opening up to a courtyard. The Activities Room is located off the lounge or "Café " area as the locals call it. The Café area is where "Mix and Mingle" Cocktail Hour is usually held. The resident-run General Store is located to the left of the Activities Room, with the residents' mailboxes next to that. Beyond the Café, a large open sitting room with a tan sofa, four large armchairs, an ottoman and a black baby grand piano are positioned. The front desk is located to the right, where workers, residents, volunteers and family members crowd around. The front desk opens up to the lobby, which is on the other side of the double-sided fireplace, where some of the ladies, like Dorothy Crow, usually sit and watch people walk by.

Park Terrace is operated by Kisco Senior Living, LLC, a moderately sized company based in Carlsbad, California. Andrew Kholberg, a tennis player who turned pro in 1980, founded the company in 1990.

He based his company on two questions: “If my parents were to live in a retirement community, what would I want it to be like?” and “How would I want them to be treated?”

With that in mind, he created a company offering facilities that include Independent and Assisted Living care. Independent Living includes services that help with laundry, a dining hall with prepared meals, housekeeping, transportation and social activities. Assisted Living requires more personal care, such as managing medications and help with bathing, dressing, toileting and eating. Kisco currently runs 18 properties in California, Nevada, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, with an annual revenue of $155 million.

Providing senior care is a growing enterprise. The United States Census Bureau reports that the elderly population (between the ages of 65 and 85) will increase roughly 40% between 2010 and 2020. With 30,000 Assisted Care Living facilities in the United States, the industry's revenue is about 3.6 billion dollars. Additionally, the industry itself is expected to grow to 4.2% by 2014.

Park Terrace in Rancho Santa Margarita was built in 2000, settled in the middle of the moderately sized town, with a population of 51, 423 people. Its exterior is tan stucco in Spanish style architecture, about a block long on two streets. There is a main building, which houses the Independent Living residents. There the RN, Ruth, runs the medical program with three Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) for the whole building. Off to the left of the main building are four cottages, aimed at providing Assisted Living care, where there is one supervising caregiver for every 12 apartments. The caregivers have to complete 60 hours of Kisco training, with 9-12 hours of continuing education a month that asks questions of hypothetical situations and interactions between seniors and caregivers. The price for this kind of care ranges from $3,000 to $5,000 a month, plus the additional costs for more personal help (an on-hand nurse, bath services, pill services, etc). This is slightly over the averange range for Assisted Care, which is $3,000 to $4,500.

The difference between Park Terrace and other Independent and Assisted Living properties is the emphasis on wellness. Kholberg, being a former athlete, is adamant about having constant activities for the residents. Elaine Janssen is the Wellness Director of Park Terrace. She is always quick to acknowledge the residents by name, smiling and greeting them in her Mid-West accent. She has been the Wellness Director for nine years, previously working another seven to eight years at an assisted living home in the neighboring town of Laguna Niguel.

Through all the activities at Park Terrace, Elaine stresses the most important part is “treating them with respect and dignity.” They are required to plan five activities a day, almost seven days a week. Sundays are more relaxed, since families usually come on those days. The Wellness Department has three other assistants: Pam, a social worker, Kellie, a registered RN, and Rosie who has a degree in tourism. They all work together, creating and developing ideas to keep the residents happy, healthy and fulfilled.

Elaine mentions Balloon Volleyball as being one of the most popular activities at Park Terrace.

“They get into it. They know where there is a weak spot on the other side, so they will try to hit that weak spot,” she said. “You know, somebody who has one arm, or is paralyzed, or someone who is not very coordinated.”

From the game I witnessed, it seemed as though Elaine was echoing Lornie’s game tactics.

The activities at Park Terrace are not only to exercise competitive characters, but also to revive memories. Park Terrace used to have a secured area for dementia patients, which is now taken over by the cottages, where Elaine would have painting classes to help connect people to their memories. She shared with me one particular story in which a lady was painting dots that seemed unrecognizable.

Elaine explained, “It was blotches of red and pink and white all over the paper. [The family] finally realized what it was, that their parent had been a rose person. She had a huge rose garden. So this [painting] was her rose garden. They just couldn’t believe that she did it.”

To Elaine, her job is rewarding when the residents are content and responding to the activities that take place on a daily basis.

"Mix and Mingle" Cocktail Hour in the Library


“Mix and Mingle,” also known as the “Cocktail Hour” is usually held in the Café area. It’s Friday afternoon at 3 o’clock, the week before Thanksgiving. There is a party being thrown for the volunteers, which moves the event into the Library, off the lobby and across from the front desk.

Lornie is drinking white wine in one of the two arm chairs off to the right hand side. When asked what kind of wine it is, he responds, “No idea.” He doesn’t care? This time the response is a shrug as he continues to sip from his small clear plastic cup. One positive quip from Lornie, “It tastes pretty good.”

Bill sits at the end of a long table, closest to the snack table that is filled with small cheese cubes, crackers and Chex Mix. He has his small plastic cup of red wine, a Merlot, with all of the snacks on a tiny plate. He’s flipping through a paper and an online article that has been printed out, this time wearing his black reading glasses. Elisabeth, usually a driver to doctor’s appointments for the Wellness Department, is playing bartender and snack hostess. Their options are Chardonnay, Merlot or Sparkling Apple Cider. A group of five residents sits at the round table at the front, all chatting.

Lornie gets up and walks to Elisabeth, asking for another glass of Chardonnay. “About two fingers,” he says, as he grabs a handful of Chex Mix and makes his way back to his seat.

Bernice walks in, after just finishing her shift at the General Store. She gets a glass of Chardonnay, but she can’t stay because she was already involved in a conversation with some ladies in the other room.

Kellie, an Activities Assistant takes over Elisabeth’s job since she needs to retrieve something from her car. It’s quiet in the library, but Kellie says there is usually music playing in their normal “Mix and Mingle” area.

She turns to Dick, an older man in blue and rumored boyfriend of fellow resident Gloria, and asks if he’s going to entertain the group.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Get up and dance!” Kellie responds.

“Oh! I thought you wanted me to strip,” Dick replies with a chuckle that matches Kellie’s laughter.

Elisabeth returns and Kellie leaves, saying goodbye to everyone.

“Bill, two fingers?” Elisabeth asks.

She starts to pour him another glass of Merlot.

“Just about two fingers, thank you sweetheart,” Bill replies, looking up from his paper.

Sitting at a small round table are friends and neighbors, Veronica in a bright red blazer, white shirt, black slacks and gray curly hair and Susan in a black and purple striped turtleneck with short, cropped gray hair and bangs (they asked their names to be changed). I mentioned that there’s going to be an entertainer tomorrow evening and asked if they planned on attending.

“I can’t go, I have a date,” Veronica says as she smiles.

Susan doesn’t really give a response, only uttering, “They have activities a lot.” She takes a sip of her Merlot and smiles, “I’m not a wine connoisseur, but the ‘Two Buck Chuck’ from Trader Joe’s is fine with me.”

Veronica explains to me she had moved here a few weeks ago. Elaine had mentioned to me earlier that there’s a problems with cliques, saying “it’s as bad as high school.”

The dining room is the hardest obstacle to overcome. A lady will bring the newcomer to a table to see if they are, as Veronica puts it, “compatible” with the others at the table.

Veronica gives a half-smile, adding, “No matter where you go, with women there’s always cliques.”

Susan chimes in, “You have enough wrinkles pulling down, it’s time to pull them up.”

Susan moved here in May, and was at the first table Veronica was brought to. She connected with the three other ladies who regularly sat at the table, and now they attend activities together. New residents are encouraged to participate in the activites. Elaine and her co-workers are dedicated to incorpoarting the new residents into the activities. Whether it be personally inviting them to events, or just simply talking to them, the Wellness department plays a major role in helping people adapt to the Assisted Living facility.

“Last call!” shouts Elisabeth. It’s 4 o’clock. Ladies are lining the lobby, waiting for the doors of the dining hall to open at 4:30. The walkers against the bookcases are gradually pulled away one by one.

Gil Alcantar plays saxophone for the crowd as they clap along.


It’s a rainy Saturday night around 6:30. Three rows of seven cushioned wooden chairs are set up, with four arm chairs pushed against the black marble fireplace. The long tan couch is in the front row, with two chairs on either side. Only two chairs are empty in the room filled with mostly women and two gentlemen. A tall man, around 5’11 with black straight hair that is slicked back and hangs past his ears is dressed in all black. He sets up a keyboard and connects it to speakers. Next to his keyboard is a tall, slim speaker system with eight speakers inside. A saxophone and flute are set up to the right of the keyboard. He tells a few jokes while he sets up, which is met with some laughs. Eventually, the crowd gets rowdy, anxious for the performance to start.

“Less talking, more playing!” shouts a voice in the crowd. Others laugh.

He introduces himself as Gil Alcantar, an entertainer for jazz concerts, restaurants and senior homes. He has roughly 35 gigs a month and is reportedly booked a year in advance. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music from Cal State Fullerton and a Master’s in Music from Cal State Dominguez Hills.

He presses a button on his keyboard and background music starts as he begins to sing, “Dance with me, sway with me…”

A few people in the crowd sway their shoulders back and forth. For his next song he asks the audience to sing along, which they do. Some women giggle when he begins to play the saxophone, standing on one of the empty chairs in the very front row.

Lynn, the receptionist who has worked for Park Terrace for five years, begins to participate. Gil is playing Tom Jones’s “Delilah,” in which the crowd starts singing in unison, “My, my Delilah, why, why, Delilah…” Lynn begins to improvise a Waltz, as everyone in the audience laughs, smiles and even claps.

Gil starts to sing “Try a Little Tenderness,” dedicating the song to “all the beautiful ladies,” in which a lady in a purple shirt giggles.

He asks if they know who Glenn Miller is. The crowd is silent, as they try to remember. He begins “In the Mood” with the infamous blast of the saxophone and the audience comes to life.

Dorothy Crow, who is often found in the lobby armchair watching people walk by, sits at the end of the fifth row. The memory of the song comes back to her, as she claps and smiles broadly, extremely excited. A lady in a red sweater puts her fists in the air, as if to cheer. The song is a hit.

Bernice, who got a front row seat, comments on his performance when he is done with the song. She tells Gil she saw Glenn Miller at the Hollywood Palladium. “You know, you sound just like him,” she exclaims. Gil smiles and says a quick “Thanks.”

As he sings “That’s Amore” from Dean Martin, Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” and “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, Dorothy continues to clap, eventually sitting at the end of her seat. Her smile is wide, and she looks around, motioning that she wants to really just go up to the front and dance. Instead, she stays in her chair, pushing her shoulders side to side, keeping in time with the beat.

He ends his set at 7:40 with “Pretty Woman,” in which Dorothy and Lynn sing along and dance. Gil goes around shaking hands with his fans, finally reaching Dorothy. She tells him how well he did, revealing she used to be a Chorus Girl in Chicago.

Dorothy dances and shakes to her own hummed rhythm as she pushes her walker to her room.

The sitting area quickly clears out, with residents Donna, Martha and Lynn watching Gil pack up. Donna, who tries to attend every event Park Terrace has, states, “He’s our favorite.”

Lynn says the crowd tonight, about 30 people, was around the typical size. Musical events are usually big, with up to 55 people attending.

The clock ticks on to eight o’clock. It’s quiet in the large room, as Gil leaves and two workers push the furniture back to its original set up. A group of about eight women, including Pearl, Bernice and Dorothy, have gathered around a table in the Café area, where they meet every night to talk.

There have been occasions where Lynn joins them after she clocks out at 10 o’clock. She says they sometimes stay till 11 at night. One talking session went on until midnight, with Lynn having to tell the ladies she had to leave.

It’s usually broken up with one person storming off. They tend to fight over who moved to Park Terrace first, trying to determine who has been there the longest, often becoming a competition among them. Lynn says they get their dates mixed up, and no matter how many times she gives them the correct information, they still end up fighting.

It’s going on nine o’clock now. None of the women have left yet. There seems to be no sign of any of them turning in soon- the night is still young.

Lynn looks over at them and turns back to me. She smiles, “There may be snow on the roof, but there’s fire in the kitchen.”

Reporting Notes:

1 hour interview with Elaine Janssen, Wellness Director of Park Terrace Assisted Living

1 interview with Pam, Activities Assistant

1 interview with Pearl, Mary, Bernice, Bill, residents of Park Terrace

2 interviews with Lornie, resident of Park Terrace

1 80 minute interview with Lynn, Receptionist of Park Terrace

1 interview with Gil Alcantar, Entertainer/Musician

1 interview with Donna, resident of Park Terrace

1 interview with 2 Park Terrace residents

4 ½ hours of observation

- Employee Continuing Education Test with Kisco Senior Living

- http://www.atpworldtour.com/Tennis/Players/Ko/A/Andy-Kohlberg.aspx

- http://www.kiscoseniorliving.com/aboutus_management.asp

- http://www.kiscoseniorliving.com/pdf/journalActiveAgingNov06.pdf

- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR9_5-AUzYo&feature=player_embedded#!

- http://www.assistedlivingfacilities.com/

- http://www.bestplaces.net/city/Rancho_Santa_Margarita-California.asp

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