Step inside Delmar Gardens in Lawrenceville and you might mistake the place for a luxury resort.
A crystal chandelier dangles high in the sunlit lobby. Colorful flower arrangements adorn tables in a bright, airy room overlooking an outdoor pool and waterfall. People swing golf clubs on a putting green. Others walk or sit by colorful landscaped gardens.
But look closer: Many people move with wheelchairs or walkers. And nearly everyone seems to be what you might call "senior." That's because Delmar Gardens is a combined retirement community and nursing home facility.
Forget whatever notions you may harbor about elderly care being depressing. This place caters to the needs of its residents in ways that can only be called elegant.
Jennifer Thilo, the facility's executive director for 11 years, said many residents come to Delmar Gardens having just lost a spouse.
"They come thinking, 'Here I go to the old people's home to wither up and die.' Instead, they come here and start living again," Thilo said.
Case in point: Rose Taylor, a bright-eyed 90-year-old who moved with her husband from Oklahoma to Delmar Gardens nearly six years ago, at the request of her daughter, Pauline Holloway. Just four days after they settled in, he died.
"It's so drastic when you lose a spouse," Taylor said. "We were married for 57 years. You wonder, 'Here I am at the end - what will I do?' Being here helped me to see it's possible to be happy."
Taylor still maintains her own apartment and keeps her own checkbook. She takes classes, attends social events and even makes it to Delmar Gardens' Saturday "happy hours."
"This is not the 'nursing home mentality' so many of us fear facing our advanced years. My mom is vibrant and enthused about life. I attribute this in part to the Delmar staff. They plan so many interesting activities each day," Pauline Holloway said.
Another independent apartment dweller, John Drake, also came to Delmar Gardens on the advice of his daughter. A "fit as a fiddle" 84-year-old, Drake said he looked at 13 places before settling here. "I'm very social. I've been in church all my life, social and civic clubs. I know all about activities. This place offers the best activities by far."
A former mechanical engineer for Ford Motor Co., Drake spends his days coordinating new activities with the Delmar staff. An avid dancer, fisherman and handyman, Drake raises tomatoes in his own garden (a plot by his apartment), reads to a local kindergarten class Fridays and plans to start a craft shop.
"This is not a dying place," Drake said. "If you can live to be 100 here, you will be well blessed."
Activities are a big part of life in Delmar Gardens, staff-generated or not. Helen Smith, a genteel 81-year-old in assisted living, launched a quilting project last fall that resulted in the production of 66 handmade quilts. Smith said she did most of the cutting out in her apartment. Then a group of about five women got together and sewed them.
The quilts were delivered to Delmar residents just in time for Christmas.
"Some days, I deal mostly with problems, but that was a very special day," Thilo said. "Those quilts really meant something to the people who received them, and to the ladies who gave them."
The reason Delmar Gardens manages its nearly 250 residents with such a family approach can be attributed to Barbara Grossberg, founder of Delmar Garden Enterprises, a St. Louis-based corporation. A Hungarian teenager during World War II, Grossberg spent 21⁄2 years in Nazi death camps, yet somehow survived.
"Barbara realized her life was meant to affirm the dignity and purpose of every human life - just the opposite of the horror she saw in the death camps," Thilo said.
As a result, Grossberg and her husband opened their first elderly care facility in St. Louis in 1965. Today, 20 Delmar Gardens facilities operate across the country, including two in Atlanta - Lawrenceville and Smyrna.
"We call ourselves the Delmar family, which sounds hokey, but it's really true. Other nursing homes have such a bottom-line mentality. But our goal is quality of life. We want the best for our residents, not the cheapest," Thilo said.
Just ask Dorothy Feeley, 82, a wheelchair-bound nursing home resident with Parkinson's disease. "My husband, Frank, and I looked at five places before we found this place," she said. "The difference is people. Everyone opens their hearts to you - not just the residents, but the employees, too. We love it here, from beginning to end."