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Chestnut Lane provides care for hearing impaired

Couple moves from California to take advantage of specialized care
by: Jim Clark (Above) Kayla Shanks helps deaf residents with poor eyesight by interpreting for them during a resident council meeting at Chestnut Lane Assisted Living.

Eighty-three year old Dennis Crowley and his wife, Pat, 82, had reached a point in their lives when living on their own was no longer possible. And like so many seniors today, surrendering complete independence in favor of assisted living was a tough choice.

But the Crowley's needs for assistance were a little different than most folks' - Dennis is hard of hearing and Pat is deaf.

'Pat's doctor told us we needed assisted living for her medical conditions,' Dennis said. 'We were living in a condo in Walnut Creek, Calif., but I'd heard about Chestnut Lane a long time ago from a friend who lived here. It was hard to leave Walnut Creek, and I still miss it, but it was a good decision to move here.'

Chestnut Lane Assisted Living Community in Gresham serves a unique market in the health care of seniors - it caters to the deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing. But it's far from a cloistered facility of silence. Chestnut Lane is teeming with active seniors who simply communicate differently.

'There's nothing wrong with their ears,' said Ellayna Skondin, Wellness Coordinator for Chestnut Lane. 'They just don't use them. We're just like a hearing facility, except we specialize in the deaf.'

Chestnut Lane was the brainchild of registered nurse, Mae Johnson. Through her work in home-health care, Johnson saw how isolated deaf people were in traditional senior facilities and grew concerned about the future of her own deaf parents.

Johnson connected Concepts in Community Living, a nonprofit that originally managed the facility, with LRS Architects to design a building that was sensitive to the particular needs of the deaf. Chestnut Lane opened in 2003 and is one of only three such communities in the nation.

'When you have a deaf family needing placement,' Skondin said, 'your options are really limited. Studies have shown that if you're deaf and you move into a hearing facility, you can go downhill really fast. Our goal is to satisfy the needs of the deaf and communication is vital. Can you imagine a world without communication and not understanding the language?'

From the front desk receptionist to the dining room personnel, all employees at Chestnut Lane are proficient in and required to learn American Sign Language. The 54,000-square-foot building is home to 74 residents, but it functions no differently than an assisted living facility for the hearing.

'If people are moving in here, it's because they just need a little help,' Skondin said. 'Maybe it's help with showering or medication management, but we have the same activities and services that a hearing facility has. We just communicate differently and do things more visually.'

Apartments are equipped with a fire-alarm system that utilizes flashing lights instead of a siren, and a nurse-call system that provides a digital readout to staff rather than a traditional intercom. Several residents have personal videophones, an amazing tool that allows them to speak to others over the telephone, both deaf and hearing, via a webcam in their television. After dialing a telephone number, residents can talk to one another via sign language, or if they're calling someone who isn't deaf, an interpreter acts as a translator. A flashing light mounted on the apartment's wall notifies the resident the telephone is ringing.

'(Teletypwriters) are really pretty obsolete anymore,' Skondin said. 'We also have video conferencing equipment in a community room they can use if they don't have (videophones) in their room.'

Skondin said every effort was made to protect the dignity of residents during the buildings' design and construction. Hallways, for example, have small 'nooks and crannies' where folks can engage in quiet conversation with caregivers or others.

'When you can hear, you can lower your voice to ask a personal question to a nurse or someone and not be heard by others,' Skondin explained. 'But when you're deaf, the most you can do is lower your hands to avoid being seen. The little alcoves allow them privacy and less chance that their conversation will be seen.'

For the Crowleys, life has become more enriched since moving to Chestnut Lane in October 2010. Dennis designs greeting cards on his computer, while Pat participates in activities and socializes.

'At first, it was a little hard leaving California,' Pat said, via translation from Skondin. 'But now, I think I'm healthier and I'm living better. I like to be busy. Standing around is horrible. I'm glad they have so much to do.'

Chestnut Lane is now owned by Emeritus Senior Living.

For information

• Call Administrator Sherry Andrus at 503-674-0364 or visit chestnutlane

alf.com