In the neighborhood 

When Compassionate Care Cottages, LLC, opened five months ago, it was the result of several years of planning by co-owners Karon Betts and Valentine Umeh, who met while working at a large living center in Oklahoma City. They both saw patients succeed in the institutionalized setting, but there were others who needed something else.

“Some people thrive in a smaller environment, and some in a bigger environment,” Umeh said.

When the Compassionate Care house is full, there is a one-to-five ratio of nurses to residents, he said, as opposed to bigger homes where one nurse might be covering 10 or more residents. In the daytime, they try to keep residents in the central part of the house, where a caregiver can be present constantly; at night, the residents have private bedrooms furnished with their own possessions.

“Our goal is to provide them with a very intimate, homelike environment for the rest of their lives, however long that may be,” Betts said.

Only seven of the 124 assisted living centers in Oklahoma have six or fewer beds, according to state Health Department records. In the metro, there are four, two of which are owned by the same company. The oldest one opened in 2010.

Although small homes are new to Oklahoma, the model has been operating in other states for several years. The trend has grown in the wake of several studies that found equal and possibly better treatment in smaller environments, according to James Joslin, chief of health resources development for the Health Department.

“There’s a push for smaller homes just for that homelike environment. What’s against it is the economy of scale,” Joslin said.

Neighbors react

In the case of Compassionate Care, the budget isn’t the only thing that’s against it. At least one neighbor in The Greens housing addition is skeptical of the new business model, and she has made it her mission to tell everyone.

Recently, a sign appeared along a main neighborhood street that read “Death House,” with an arrow pointing at the center. It sat in the front yard of LeWilma Joy Woodard for several days before it disappeared after she spoke with Oklahoma Gazette. Previously, she said she planned to leave it up “forever.”

“I got mad. My fur kind of came up, and I went and got my sign and painted it,” Woodard said.
Woodard, who has lived in the same house for 32 years and has made signs to protests neighbors in the past, said she doesn’t see how a legitimate senior home could operate in a private house, and she’s worried about what an operation like that will do to the neighborhood.

“I’ve got enough problems with the value of my property dropping,” she said.

Janet Talley, who lives a block away, said property value may have been a passing thought for her, but she doesn’t think it could affect much. When she read about the center in the neighborhood association newsletter, her first thought was that it’s a good thing for the city.

Compassionate Care employee Tracey Pennington with resident Vae Lawrence
Credit: Mark Hancock

“The people who moved in have really taken care of the house,” Talley said.

She said she was more concerned about the impact of the sign across the street.

“To put up something that the families, when they come to visit, that they’re going to see … how sad,” Talley said.

The feel of home

Compassionate Care has not changed the layout of the house, but a lot of work has been done inside to make it compliant with regulations. Doorways were widened, bathrooms were remodeled for accessibility and the original carpet was replaced with thinner carpet that won’t snag wheels. The windows and doors all have alarms that sound when they’re opened to prevent residents with dementia from getting lost.

“We did everything by the letter of the law,” Betts said. “You know, we’ve invested a lot of money in the home and caring for these people.”

Initially, there were five residents in at Compassionate Care. Two have since died. Their pictures adorn the walls. Some of their furniture has been donated to common spaces. Betts and Umeh recalled in detail their life stories and their final weeks.

“In every assisted living center, people come and go,” Umeh said.

But they had been working with the five residents for a few years at the larger center before their families moved them to the new house. Losing two was particularly hard.

During an interview in the house’s office, Nancy Culver dropped by to visit her former neighbor, Lola Vae Lawrence, whom she counts as family. Someone was baking sugar cookies while residents sat next to a fully decked Christmas tree in the red-hued and warmly lit den.

“I think it’s wonderful how they get the one-on-one attention,” Culver said.

She said she comes by as often as possible and the door is always open to family members. That’s why they receive keys, Betts said. Anytime families visit, it helps make the house even more like a home, and that’s their goal.

“We’re going to take these people. We’re going to love them with all of our heart,” Betts said. “And we’re going to give them the best care they can get in the state, or in any state, until they die.”

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