CHELSEA, Ma.—The woman Barry Berman saw sitting in the dining room of the nursing home was not his mother.
Or, at least, she was his mother, but didn’t look anything like her. His mother was vivacious, or she had been until she was felled by a massive stroke and then pneumonia, so he’d moved her into a nursing home so she could recuperate. He knew he could trust the nursing home, since he ran it, and knew it was lauded for the efficiency with which it served residents. But when he went to look for his mother a day or two after he moved her in, he barely recognized her.
“I’ll never forget the feeling as long as I live,” he told me. “I said, ‘Oh my God, there’s my mother, this old woman, in a wheelchair, lifeless. Look what my own nursing home did to my own mother in a matter of days.”
Berman had run assisted living and nursing complexes for 23 years before this moment, but it completely changed the way he thought about how to care for the elderly. He moved his mother home immediately, arranged for home-care aides to come to her, and then set about to completely upending the way his organization, Chelsea Jewish Foundation, cared for its aging patients.
“It was the kick I needed, to say there has to be something else for the elderly that we can do,” Berman told me.
What followed was a multi-year project to build, from the ground up, a nursing home that would look totally different from the traditional model. It would be based on innovative experiments from elsewhere, and it would accept people of all different incomes, as well as non-elderly people with debilitating diseases such as ALS and MS. It would be a home, not a hospital, no matter how sick residents were, and it would allow them to make their own choices and live their own lives.