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March 18, 2003

Assisted living for deaf elderly is longtime dream for woman

From: Oregonian, OR - 18 Mar 2003


GRESHAM -- There are days, Mae Johnson says, when she walks into her new building and begins to cry, because the dream has been so long in coming.

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And now here it comes: an assisted living facility for elderly deaf and deaf-blind people, the first facility of its kind in the Northwest and only the second in the nation.

The four-story facility, called Chestnut Lane, will open this summer at Northeast Sixth Street and Cleveland Avenue adjacent to the light-rail line. Fifty of the 70 apartments have already been reserved, an indication of the enthusiasm for the project within the deaf community, Johnson says.

Most of the residents will be low-income; 54 of the apartments are set aside for people eligible for Medicaid housing supplements.

Advocates say deaf elderly are particularly vulnerable in traditional nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which rarely employ staff who know sign language. Unable to communicate, deaf elderly can become isolated and depressed.

Johnson says Chestnut Lane will provide a safe, supportive environment. Because it is adjacent to a MAX station and within a couple of blocks of the new Multnomah County building, residents will have easy access to shopping and services.

"Being in a safe community and going out from there is the whole plan," Johnson says.

A market study conducted two years ago showed there are close to 2,000 deaf people older than 65 in the Portland-Vancouver area. Nearly 300 of them had health problems that made them eligible for an assisted living facility, the study showed.

Although people are excited about the facility opening, Johnson says, the event is tempered by anxiety. Because there's nothing to compare it to, she says, some elderly deaf wonder if it might be like the controlled atmosphere of the institutional deaf schools many of them attended as children. She tries to reassure them that Chestnut Lane will operate more like an apartment complex, with the residents free to come and go.

Johnson's had a good response from deaf people who want to work at Chestnut Lane -- 63 applications for 26 jobs. The deaf are chronically under-employed, and the opportunity to work in a setting where they can converse with other employees and with residents is appealing, Johnson says.

Special enhancements The $8 million building has several features designed for deaf and deaf-blind residents. The fire alarm system has flashing lights; rooms for residents who are also blind will have vibrating beds that will wake them in an emergency.

Each room has space for a TTY, a text telephone. A computer room shared by the residents will have equipment for video conferencing, so residents can use sign language instead of typing. The nurse-call system in each room provides a digital readout rather than a traditional intercom.

The size of the facility's first-floor living room was cut in half from the original design. Deaf prefer to talk in small groups because sign language conversations can get jumbled in larger settings, Johnson says. Smaller gathering spaces, with room for a card table or simply a couple of chairs, are scattered throughout the building.

The rooms come with refrigerators and microwave ovens, but residents will take most of their meals in a dining room on the top floor. A community room on the third floor could be used for meetings, church services or sign language classes, Johnson says.

Other features include a small library, beauty salon and laundry.

Room 218, a one-bedroom apartment in the southeast corner near the library, will be home to Johnson's parents, Ray and Jeanne Jordan. They are the reason Johnson decided to build the facility in the first place.

She'd rather die at home Johnson, a registered nurse who knows sign language, got the idea after encountering an elderly deaf woman who was dying of cancer. The woman told Johnson she'd rather die at home than be isolated in a nursing home where no one could sign.

That started Johnson thinking about her parents, both deaf and in their 70s. Checking with acquaintances who have deaf parents, she discovered no one had a plan for their parents' care. She opened a foster care home for deaf elderly -- the first one in Oregon -- and soon had a waiting list 15 people long.

The dream of opening Chestnut Lane grew from there. Although Johnson has no development experience, she linked with a consultant who helped her cobble together funding from the state Housing and Community Services Division, the city of Gresham and Multnomah County.

Johnson's parents, who now live in a mobile home park in Hillsboro, are anxious for the facility to open. Her mother rides MAX to the construction site every two weeks to take pictures of the progress, and is planning where her furniture will go.

Her father has his plans, too.

"Daddy wants to be next to the library so he can go out and get his Zane Grey books anytime he wants," Johnson says.

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