‘We say “LGBT community and friends”, so everyone feels welcome,’ says Lauren Kabakoff from her office in sunny Palm Springs, California. ‘But overall, the people who are calling us, looking into us and deciding to move don’t want the typical option…’
Lauren is the Marketing Director and Event Coordinator Stonewall Gardens, an assisted living retirement community that opened in January 2015.
‘We are open to everybody,’ she stresses. ‘But we understand there are inherent differences for this community. [Our LGBTI residents] have decided the traditional model is not right for them. It doesn’t match up with what they envision their senior life being like.’
A former motel built in the 1950s, Stonewall Gardens is found on the main drag going into the California’s premier gay male vacation destination. Offering 24/7 care to residents across 24 units, the business is co-owned by Lauren’s family and another family. It’s long been a passion project for Lauren’s father, whose background is in contracting and building.
‘We have our second trans female moving in’
‘We have a gentleman moving in next week, and what is to be our second transgender female moving in,’ says Lauren, sombrely adding that ‘unfortunately, we yesterday had a memorial for a gentleman who passed away who was 95. From 1922 to now, it’s a world apart.’
‘He was married to a female, but had two same-sex partners later in life,’ she continues. ‘He was even actually able to marry one of them in Canada. At one point he said to his daughter “Whoever would have thought this was going to be possible for me?”‘
After a survey of 3,000 LGBTI people for Gay Star News’s inaugural LGBTI Founders’ Day found three out of four respondents want LGBTI nursing and retirement homes, Lauren tells us more about day-to-day life as Stonewall Gardens, while resident Matthew also tell us what he loves most about his sun-drenched home in the Californian desert…
What’s different about Stonewall Gardens?
Lauren: It’s recognizing the folks who live with us have these stories and commonalities with other residents. It’s something they can openly and freely discuss.
Therefore, yes, we take care of the physical person. Bathing, dressing, grooming. We do their meals, take them to doctors’ appointments, all of that. But within that, there’s so much more that we take care of. It’s their mental, emotional and physical states.
There are layers to a person. They need to eat, dress and bathe – that’s a simplistic version. I feel that’s where the conventional model of assisted living is lacking for the LGBT population. They put up a flag and are like “Oh look, gay pride.” And that’s it. And, you know… I don’t know if it’s insulting, but I don’t think it does the resident justice to just be so one dimensional with it.
It’s about: how do your caregivers feel towards them? What are your activities? Do they cater to their interests? Do you do anything different for them, or is just regular old bingo?
Have people from around the country been relocating to Palm Springs?
Yes. At this point, over half the people coming are coming from out of town. That was surprising for us. We figured we were going to get most of our people from Palm Springs and the surrounding area. Maybe some from LA, San Francisco. But we’ve had people from Hawaii relocate; Ohio, Florida, all over. It’s quite remarkable.
What’s the average age of a resident?
I’d say 72 or so. We skew a lot younger than the average assisted living, [which] typically tends to be 80. We have a gentleman who’s 52. He’s our youngest resident. Our oldest just passed away at 95; our second oldest now is 89.
Do residents become like family to each other?
Yes. We have a resident who recently went with some friends to Idyllwild up in the mountains for a week. He came down just for the memorial, then turned around and went back. He spoke during the memorial about how you like everybody and some people you come to love.
It really is that family unit. They spend so much time together. Friendships get really strong. Some don’t have families, some are estranged from their family. We become their family – the staff, the other residents. We do Thanksgiving and Christmas, birthdays.
Where did the idea for the facility come from?
My dad came to me a couple of years ago saying he wanted to do assisted living. He’s a first-year Baby Boomer, and started calling it his ‘last 25’, which was really horrific for me, to hear my dad talking about his last years. He became very, at that time, concerned and aware of his own mortality.
He doesn’t like the traditional assisted living that exists here in the country. His mom had Alzheimer’s and fortunately he was able to do home care for her with a live-in caregiver.
He was like ‘if I had to go somewhere, I wouldn’t want to go to any of these places.’ So he talked to his business partner and they started looking around for property. They found this place. Doing research, reading studies and articles, they found there’s no comfortable place for the LGBT population, and how so many folks end up going back into the closet.
That was really upsetting for him. This generation has fought so hard, gone through everything and paved the way for the rights that the younger generation has today. I think that really hurt him and he realized, that’s ridiculous. I think at the time it was 2013; he was like ‘That’s unacceptable. We can do better.’ That’s kind of how this all started. Palm Springs was just the perfect place for it. It came out of that.
Life at Stonewall Gardens
Matthew: Any assisted living facility can wow you with a tour, and Stonewall Gardens will do just that – a stunning Palm Springs mid-century modern oasis with a breathtaking view of Mt. San Jacinto. Immaculately landscaped grounds. Exquisite attention paid to the smallest details of architecture and decor. This is not the “home” you visited grampa in 30 years ago! In fact, you may forget this is a care facility and think you’re on vacation at one of the city’s many boutique resorts.
But the real test of any assisted living facility is how the staff treats its residents. Are you just a warm body filling a room? Or a valued member of a community bringing a lifetime of experiences and having a few stories to tell?
Adults in need of care – because of age, illness, or injury – are often patronized and belittled for their neediness rather than assisted with their living. At Stonewall Gardens the emphasis is on “living” an as full and happy a life as possible. The “assistance” is a means to that end.
– Matthew Wilkinson
All photos: David A. Lee Photography