As the first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)-friendly retirement community to provide continuing and progressive care, Fountaingrove Lodge provides a safe place for residents and staff to be themselves
Amazing. Gorgeous. Incredible. Residents and staff are using superlatives like these to describe life at Fountaingrove Lodge, a 10-acre retirement campus that opened in November 2013. The estimated $52 million project, in the works since 2005, includes Fountaingrove Lodge, which offers resort-style, independent retirement living in 64 apartment-homes and six standalone bungalows; and The Terraces, a 33-unit community offering specialized services for individuals with early to advanced stages of memory loss.
Fountaingrove Lodge features craftsman-style architecture, spacious living areas and a long list of upscale amenities—five-star dining, a wine cave, fitness center, movie theater and much more. “Fountaingrove Lodge offers the ultimate in luxury living, 365 days per year,” says Ira Lubell, a 77-year-old retired physician and public health professional, who moved in three weeks after it opened. “Everything is done with great taste. I feel completely relaxed here.”
The openly gay Lubell and his partner, Louis Bonsignore, feel comfortable in their new home for another important reason: As the first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)-friendly retirement community to provide continuing and progressive care, Fountaingrove Lodge provides a safe place for residents and staff to be themselves with no explanations, no euphemisms and no shame.
“No one needs to hide or pretend here,” says Heidi Charette, executive director. “You can be whomever (I think “whoever” is grammatically correct)you want to be and the community will embrace you.”
An idea whose time has come
The idea for an LGBT-friendly retirement community has been growing for decades, according to Lubell. “About 35 years ago, I was among a group that started talking about creating something for ‘us’ when we retired,” he says. “But then the AIDS crisis hit and the need disappeared—nobody thought we were going to stay alive, much less grow old.”
The idea reemerged in the late 1990s, and communities were proposed in the Palm Springs area and the Southwest. But the nonprofit groups behind these projects didn’t have the operational or construction experience required to secure funding, so efforts stalled.
Enter William (Bill) and Cindy Gallaher, founders of Santa Rosa-based Oakmont Senior Living (OSL), a recognized leader in the retirement industry that’s developed more than 30 upscale senior communities throughout the western United States. Bill has been in the building and development business since the mid 1970s. Cindy is an experienced manager with credentials that include operating a successful nonprofit (North Bay Adoptions, which she and Bill founded in 1990) and overseeing the OSL design department.
In 2005, the Gallahers purchased a 10-acre parcel along Thomas Lake Harris Road. The property was zoned for high-density residential development, but the Gallahers—who’d just broken ground on Varenna, an upscale senior community not far from Fountaingrove Lodge—weren’t sure exactly what they’d do with it. Soon after the acquisition, two companies interested in developing LGBT-oriented projects on the property approached the couple. The prospect of working with a partner didn’t appeal to the Gallahers, but the idea of building something special for the LGBT community did.
“As adoptive parents of transracial children, we’re highly sensitive to the experience of minority groups,” explains Cindy, who’s involved in every aspect of design for each OSL project. “Bill and I had already developed a niche community for Chinese seniors, which had been extremely satisfying both personally and professionally. We felt that building a community for LGBT seniors would fill an important social need while also providing a challenge for us.”
To ensure the project would meet the needs and preferences of its target audience—affluent, educated individuals and couples who identify as LGBT and are age 65 and older—Bill and Cindy sought the input of LGBT friends and established a formal LGBT advisory group. The couple also tapped their own considerable talents in design, construction and project management. For example, to choose an architectural theme for the project, the Gallahers considered a number of factors: the engineering requirements of the hillside site; the advisory board’s suggestions for clean lines and a sophisticated feel; and the Gallahers’ personal desire to preserve the coast live oaks and other natural features on the property. In the end, they selected a craftsman design aesthetic that’s winning high praise.
“The craftsman architecture fits the site perfectly,” says Lubell. “We’re nestled in an oak-studded hillside on one side and privy to spectacular views of West Sonoma County on the other. It’s like being at the Ahwahnee Lodge, but better.”
Building an LGBT project in Sonoma County makes sense. After all, the area is beautiful, replete with recreational opportunities, close to San Francisco and deemed one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world. Consequently, Fountaingrove Lodge is drawing residents from places near and far, including San Francisco, Maryland, Florida and London.
Even so, the Gallahers have had to think outside the box to market Fountaingrove Lodge and The Terraces.
In a typical rollout, marketing would consist of mailings to seniors of a certain income bracket who live within 20 miles of the facility. But, as the Oakmont team discovered early on, prospective residents of Fountaingrove Lodge and the Terraces don’t live in a single geographical region, read a single magazine or even have a single definition of what it means to be LGBT. So the team has adopted a strategy that includes targeted mailings to a wide variety of lists, media outreach to LGBT and non-LGBT publications and, most important, a word-of-mouth campaign within the LGBT community and allied organizations.
As a result, more than half of Fountaingrove Lodge’s units have been reserved, primarily to LGBT seniors. But somewhat surprisingly, a number of non-LGBT couples and individuals have also toured—and even moved into—the community.
“Fountaingrove Lodge appeals to anyone who feels at home in the LGBT community—parents of an LGBT child, for example, or an activist-type who wouldn’t fit in a traditional retirement setting,” explains Charette. “And for some, moving to Fountaingrove Lodge might be the first step in coming out after a closeted life. We sense their hesitation and do our best to emphasize how welcome they’d be here.”
Affluent, active and young
Another surprise: the average age of Lodge residents is 70, a full decade younger than the average age in other retirement communities, including neighboring Varenna. Fountaingrove Lodge is even drawing residents in their late 50s and early 60s, who often tour Fountaingrove Lodge at the request of an older spouse or partner.
“Sometimes the younger partners are cautious at first,” explains Charette. “But when they see our community isn’t traditional in any way, shape or form, they’re in.”
To explain what she means by “not traditional,” Charette starts with the residents themselves. Youthful in age and in spirit, they value their independence and continue to travel, pursue professional endeavors and maintain an active social calendar. Most do not have children, so dinner conversations center usually on topics like politics, the arts and wine tasting, not what the kids or grandkids are up to. They’re sophisticated and appreciate the finer things in life, yet many have a down-to-earth quality that makes them uncomfortable in other upscale retirement communities. And they’re vocal about the activities they want—late-night movie showings, frequent hiking excursions and a lecture series about LGBT history, for example.
“We share a camaraderie based on our experience of being LGBT,” says Lubell. “Even our jokes are different than what you’d hear in a traditional retirement setting.”
The camaraderie extends to Fountaingrove Lodge employees, who either identify as LGBT or have a strong affiliation with the LGBT community.Charette says -younger staff members listen in awe as residents tell stories about the gay rights movement, the AIDS crisis and other aspects of LGBT history, while the more experienced staff revel in the chance to plan more sophisticated, unconventional activities than what they’d plan in typical retirement homes. And they can be honest about their personal lives—introducing a loved one as a spouse, not a roommate, for example—without the judgment or even reprisal they might find in other job settings.
Charette offers a poignant example that speaks to the outrageous, fun-loving and deeply human character of Fountaingrove Lodge’s community. Staff and residents planned an over-the-top New Year’s Eve celebration, with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator greeting residents and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for entertainment. When the clock struck midnight, the ebullient crowd of residents and staff greeted the New Year with hugs—and tears. “I asked the serving staff why they were crying on such a festive occasion,” says Charette. “These young men, decked out in faked eyelashes and dressed to the nines, replied, ‘Our future is so bright.’”
Continues Lubell, “The residents see the staff smiling, and we know those smiles aren’t artificial. We’re having fun, and so are they.”
A continuum of care
Growing older isn’t always fun, though, particularly when one’s body or mind begins to break down. Through wellness programs and hands-on care, Fountaingrove Lodge and The Terraces help residents navigate these impairments as gracefully as possible.
Both facilities follow an “aging in place” model, so residents can stay in their homes through injury, illness and the final days of their lives. This is unlike what’s in place at other retirement homes, where residents are asked to relocate, either temporarily or permanently, if their physical or cognitive capacities deteriorate.
“The aging in place model brings our residents enormous peace of mind,” says Charette. “Singles have the assurance they’ll be cared for if something happens, while couples feel relief that both partners will get what they need even if they age differently.”
At Fountaingrove Lodge, the model permeates how main rooms and individual homes, as well as the fixtures inside, are designed and installed. Residents can take advantage of wellness-oriented programs (such as diabetes management and fitness classes), healthy (yet still incredibly delicious) meal options and plenty of opportunities to nurture the soul—building cabinets in the woodshop, painting watercolors in the art studio or planting tomatoes in the chef’s garden.
At The Terraces, seniors with dementia receive specialty therapy and assisted care programs to prolong their independence, improve communication and enable social interactions.Daily activities include mind and body fitness classes, off-site excursions, music and art therapy programs, games and social gatherings that keep residents active and engaged. The community also features amenities that reflect the interests of its residents, including a movie theater, aviary, work bench and an outdoor garden.
A move to The Terraces may be recommended if a Fountaingrove Lodge resident shows a need for full-time memory care. What makes this transition easier is the collaboration between staff at the two facilities. Visits from a partner or friends at Fountaingrove Lodge also help. But the most important factor in a seamless transition—for Terraces residents and their loved ones at Fountaingrove Lodge—is the research-based, person-centered care residents receive from The Terraces staff.
“Residents at The Terraces are loved and respected by the employees who care for them,” says Charette. “The staff sets an example for all of us in senior care. They really consider it an honor to work with residents who are at their most vulnerable.”
Many components for success
For the Gallahers, a healthy employee culture is the key to creating a successful Oakmont community.
“If you’re going to deliver superior service to your residents, employees have to feel really good about their jobs,” says Cindy Gallaher. “A lot of positions in our industry aren’t high-paying. Our goal is to pay as much we can and then find other ways to show employees they’re valued.”
Ongoing training is an investment that helps staff perform better and more confidently. Sensitivity training, for example, helps employees empathize with residents and understand how much physical or mental pain affects behavior. Specialized training for The Terraces staff help them understand the medical reasons dementia patients behave in certain ways and how to redirect that behavior to promote quality of life for everyone.
Fountaingrove Lodge and The Terraces staff members also receive specific diversity training in LGBT issues. Jamie Escoubas, vice president of resident services, says the training has, so far, been a wonderful bonding experience, with staff sharing their insights and personal stories to complement what turned out to be an outdated training video.
“The process demonstrated how far ahead of the curve we are,” Escoubas explains. “Although awareness of LGBT issues is growing, mainstream society still has a long way to go. We’ve decided to develop our own curriculum to address Fountaingrove Lodge’s needs right now.”
The Gallaher’s desire to live ahead of the curve—building with integrity, delivering the ultimate customer experience, treating residents and employees with compassion—evokes one last superlative:exceptional.