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June 15, 2004

Deaf find their space in new living place

From: Portland Tribune - Portland,OR,USA - Jun 15, 2004

Chestnut Lane is designed to facilitate communication

Issue date: Tue, Jun 15, 2004
The Tribune

Chestnut Lane is the first assisted-living complex in the country designed especially for the deaf and deaf-blind.

This Gresham facility, which opened in August 2003, has small gathering places conducive to signed conversation, flashing lights in the bedrooms to alert residents of visitors and Braille on the doors of the medication and interpreter rooms. Everything about the complex caters to the needs of the deaf and deaf-blind.

Mae Johnson, a registered nurse with experience in home health care, came up with the idea of opening a facility for the deaf. She says the idea of Chestnut Lane grew out of concern about her own deaf parents.

"As my parents began aging, my siblings and I were trying to figure out what would happen to them if they became ill," she says. "When I was a home health nurse, I saw how deaf people were isolated in institutional settings because the staff caring for them didn't know sign language. That was my wake-up call."

Johnson teamed Concepts in Community Living, a nonprofit that manages the facility, with LRS Architects, the firm that designed the building. The facility's first-floor living room was cut in half from the original design to better accommodate limited groups of people.

"Deaf people normally do well in groups of two to three people, but by the time you add eight or 10 people you can't talk one on one anymore," Johnson explains.

Smaller gathering places, with room for a couple of chairs or a card table, are scattered throughout the building.

"We felt that providing intimate space was essential, since people who sign need to face each other in order to have conversations," says Dan Edwards, of LRS. "We designed two- and three-person alcoves, as well as bay-shaped spaces in the hallways, to provide casual areas at each floor for residents to gather."

Each of the 70 units in the 54,000-square-foot complex has space for a TTY, a text telephone, and a shared computer room has video conferencing equipment so residents can use sign language instead of typing. A handy nurse call system in each room provides a digital readout in place of traditional intercoms.

All of the staff, including caregivers, cooks and clerical workers, communicate by signing. A fire alarm system with flashing lights was installed as well as vibrating beds in rooms of blind residents to wake them up in case of an emergency. Fifty-four of the units are earmarked for people eligible for Medicaid housing supplements.

Bernice Dayton, who is 95, had been at an assisted-living facility in Olympia for 4 1/2 years before learning about Chestnut Lane. "I can fully participate in all of the activities without struggling with access barriers," Dayton says.

Not all of the residents are elderly. Some are young and middle-aged. Lynn St. Germaine, 48, moved from Minnesota in order to live at the community. "When Chestnut Lane opened last summer, my sister and her husband, who lived in Portland, immediately told me about this wonderful community," Germaine says.

"I have multiple sclerosis, and I knew that I needed to live in a community where there would be a 24-hour caring staff and an RN to monitor my health. I didn't want to live in a hearing facility where I would be lonely and not understand the nurse, so I was thrilled to hear about Chestnut Lane."

Johnson says that deaf people are excited about living at the complex. "We started with a dream, and now it has come true," she says.