By Kathryn May

Sean Burrows is a man with many loves.  His family and friends top the list.  He adores his animals and will extend his petting paw forth to most others.  He happens to enjoy the winter, so living in Grand Rapids his whole life has been a pleasure. When he’s not at work, he plays in a band named Blood Eagle accompanied by the love of his life, his bass.  If Burrows doesn’t already seem like the man with everything, he also has an irrefutable love for his job.

In 2010, Burrows started working for Porter Hills Retirement Communities & Services.  He was told he’d be an RA, or Residents’ Aide, and would help take care of the patients in the facility.  He was nervous about his skills in the field, but would quickly learn how important his role was.

The Baby Boomers

From 1946 to 1964, an estimated 79 million babies were born.  This era of post-WWII offspring became known as the baby boomer generation.  By 2011, Census data showed that the population size for Americans 55 and older was more than 76 million Americans.

The 16,100 nursing homes in the United States have more than 1.7 million beds; the current occupancy rate is at 86 percent, according to 2012 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Locally, Kalamazoo’s over-65 population was 9 percent of the 75,000 residents in the city in 2010.

The local facilities for seniors each seek to offer specialized care programs that serve a variety of economic, physical and mental limitations.

“I think the overall idea of senior living is more accepted and people are more conscious of that idea,” says Matt Shankle, head of the marketing department for Heritage Community of Kalamazoo.

Thirty years ago, Shankle says, nursing homes had melancholy reputations.  They were thought of as the last, over-priced stop before everything ends.  These days, life for retirees is much better.

Heritage Community of Kalamazoo offers care to a spectrum of people, from people who can take care of themselves well enough to live alone, but choose to be closer to professional care as needed, to memory and skilled nursing rehabilitation centers for patients with diagnoses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

Another group of care facilities in the area, Friendship Village Kalamazoo, offers many of the same programs as Heritage Community.  Teresa Snook, the volunteer coordinator, said the facility is adding a care program called Independent Plus that’s designed for people in a situation between living independently and in need of full assisted living.  The memory care area of assisted living will double from 11 residents to 22. Last summer, Friendship Village built a $50,000 full-sized auditorium open to the community.

The Costs of Care

When Diane Green was born, her dad was in his later forties.  She is now 23 years old and her father is 71 and living in nursing home.  By the time Green was in elementary school, her father had developed a handful of health conditions.  Things have gotten much harder as he’s gotten older.  Finally the day came when it wasn’t safe for Green’s father to be alone and Green’s family moved him to a facility close to their previous home in Stockbridge.

Green says it’s wonderful for her father to be somewhere where he can get immediate, professional help if he needs it.  The home he’s staying in has a staff that’s available 24/7 and offers transportation.  Her father, she says, has become happier by being surrounded by other people much like himself. However, there is one thing that Green doesn’t like about the nursing home.

““Nursing homes are so expensive,” she says.  “We looked at a few places for my dad and finally found a place that was only $3,000 a month.  When we were looking we saw some that were closer to $5,000.  We have to pay for extras at my dad’s place, like food and transportation; the cost of his home now is closer to $4,000 a month.”

Green and her twin brother have both worked hard to help pay for the extra charges on top of their fathers rent.  The efforts seem endless though, as each month the bill gets higher and higher.

The Choice for the Aging

When Sean Burrows talks about his stay at Porter Hills, he talks mostly of the good times.  The kind of day when he see’s a lot of smiles from his patients, or hears someone say something hinting that they’re holding on.  He bonds with the patients he works with and makes a whole-hearted effort each day to make theirs better.  He emphasizes how rewarding it is to know that what’ he’s doing is helping someone else.  Today, he’s wonderful with patients.  One could say he always was.  He says it took a lot of convincing though.

The day Burrows started working at Porter Hills, he didn’t think he’d be able to help anyone.  He’d worked in factories and at the airport, but never with people who needed him for more than carrying baggage.  He was afraid, at first, of the responsibilities he’d have and the lives he may alter.  All those feeling diminished after he got to know his first patient.

Burrows couldn’t disclose any information about the person he first served other than the patient had Alzheimer’s and could barely do anything by themselves.   The two became increasingly close until one day, Burrows walked into an empty room.  The patient hadn’t died, but had exceeded the level of care they offered at the location Burrows worked with.  The organization moved him to a building across the street, where Sean later learned that the patient passed away a week later.

When Sean Burrows gets ready for work, he spends time perfecting his appearance. He doesn’t do this for his management or to impress any of his co workers.  He does it because he cares about what his patients think of him.  Sean Burrows  loves his job.