Visiting the Oaks at Hampton assisted living community in north Forsyth County feels strangely like coming home.
It’s not just the building itself, which is designed like a comfortable yet rustic lodge, but the people and the atmosphere that welcomes you to come in and get comfortable.
Upon arrival at the Oaks, it’s more than likely that you’ll be greeted by friendly staff and residents, who bustle in and out on errands and trips; you’ll also be treated to barks, good-natured slobbering and happy wagging from the community’s five dogs, Charlie, Easton, Sammy, Pippy Lou and Stewy.
In the most literal sense of the word, the Oaks at Hampton is a community of family members, as tight knit and loving as any in the outside world. Together, residents, staff, animals and family live alongside one another in harmony, sharing all the various elements of life that make it worth living.
According to Gail Lancaster, executive director for the Oaks at Hampton, what makes her community different is a new way of approaching elder care that takes the spirit of a close-knit community and puts it into action, giving the 85 residents comfort, joy and purpose in their sunset years.
"They are in charge of me and that's how it should be, 100 percent," Lancaster said. "This is their home and they've had so much taken away from them – they don't have their homes anymore, they don't have their cars, so anything they can have we feel they should get."
She said that this new approach to care, called the Eden Alternative, is a way of combating the “plagues” of traditional assisted living facilities: loneliness, helplessness and boredom.
The atmosphere, the animals and the willingness to do whatever their residents need to find purpose in life are all part of that approach, she said.
At a typical assisted living facility, if a resident wanted to help with the daily cleaning or push other wheelchair-bound residents around, it wouldn't be allowed, she said.
But at their community, if it's safe and the resident can do it, "why not let them have a purpose and be happy?" she said.
Residents of the Oaks at Hampton are split into two “neighborhoods” – assisted living and Horizons, a secured wing for elders with dementia and other more intense care needs. Even though the two neighborhoods are separated, Lancaster said that the entire community of residents regularly participates in group activities together, like one big family.
On Friday, one resident, Ruth Victor, said that after nearly two years at the Oaks, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Victor said that she loves the balance between freedom to do what she wants and the comfort of having things like her food, clothes and other needs attended to.
"This is home," she said. "This is the only home I have, so I'm comfortable here."
Another resident, Mary Bell Anders, said that before coming to the Oaks, she was living at home isolated with 24/7 care. But one day she decided to make a change and toured the Oaks.
"One day I said, 'I don't see any people here and I need to see people, to be with people,'" Anders said. "I don't know of a better place to live."
She said that she wasn't enamored with the idea of living with all the dogs around all the time, but over time she's grown to like having them around.
"Whether I like them or not, they like me," she said.
Lancaster said that the bonds that residents like Victor and Anders form in the community are vital to their quality of life.
"To have a fulfilling life ... they need to have deep bonds and relationships with each other," she said. “My resident's don't even think of this as a nursing home, they think of it as their big beautiful home."
And like a big beautiful home, there is always a lot to do and a lot going on at the Oaks.
According to Lifestyle Director Sandy Diekroeger, the residents have near absolute control of their schedules. They eat when they want, sleep when they want, play when they want. Residents also have the final say on group outings.
Diekroeger said that in the past the residents have vetoed going to the Georgia Aquarium, opting instead for a north Georgia wine tour and regularly they vote to make trips up to Jaemor Farms in Alto, Georgia for fresh ice cream.
"They tell me,” she said. “And if they want to go to The Varsity, that's where we're going … That would not happen anywhere."
Diekroeger is continuously thrilled by how much her co-workers care about the residents, coming in to be with them on off-days, bringing their kids and pets to work and showing a level of care that is not normally seen in the nursing home environment.
"Most of the time you're controlled of what you do, how you do it,” she said. "But people who come to work here care. We're not here just for our shift.”
Recently, Lancaster said that the Oaks at Hampton was officially recognized by the Eden Alternative for the work that they have done at the facility, and the facility was added to the group’s “Eden Registry.”
"Eden Alternative is culture change,” she said. “We always had some dogs, we've always had some kids during off-hours, but because of the Eden Alternative and the tools that they've given us, we really have changed our culture."