How Small Town Values Helped Tom May Craft a Modern Approach to Assisted Living

Tom May was born in the local hospital in Gordonsville, Virginia. He started his career at the Gordonsville hospital, and when the hospital became an assisted living community he signed on as Administrator. He is still there today, overseeing operations and interacting daily with residents, family and staff. Tom also sits on the Board of Directors for the Virginia Health Care Association, has held numerous advisory positions in the field of assisted living, and is organist at Christ Episcopal Church in Gordonsville.   

We visited with Tom in his office at The Village at Gordon House and asked about his story and his philosophy of caring for others.

1.  Your life has come full circle – you are the Administrator of The Village at Gordon House, on the site of the former Gordonsville hospital, where you were born and later worked in radiology and as an Administrator. Tell us about that.

It’s true. I was born at the Gordonsville hospital, and lived in Gordonsville most all my life.When people ask me where I’m from, I say “upstairs in room 11.” (he laughs)

Working with geriatric patients at Gordonsville Hospital, getting to know them and being able to help them sparked my interest in geriatric care. I learned a lot about how to be flexible, and how to take a creative approach to problem solving. When the hospital closed, I was approached by a group of investors who were starting the Gordon House so I decided to get involved. And I’ve been here ever since.

2.  Sounds like you developed a passion for helping others early on. Who helped shape your philosophy of care?

I’ll have to go back to the Gordonsville hospital and the physicians that were here, like Dr. Bruce who started the hospital. He created a culture for a caring environment, saying let’s take care of our employees, lets offer good food to our patients, and so on. My mother was his nurse for many years and I basically grew up at the Gordonsville hospital. The interesting thing is Dr. Bruce became a resident here, so it all came full circle.

Someone else who helped me was Wallace Holladay, the son of one of our first residents. Mr. Holladay was born in Gordonsville and had moved to the Washington, DC area where he operated multiple assisted living communities. He invited me to see their philosophy of care and how they ran the place. I lived within the community for several days eating meals with the residents, participating in activities, and talking with the administrator and staff. It was an eye opener – when you live with residents you learn all the secrets (he laughs). “They think they do this right, BUT…” They’ll tell you!

3.  You must have seen a lot of change throughout your career. How has elder care evolved and where is it going?

In the early years of assisted living most residents were very independent. They needed some help with daily activities, but it was more of a social model. Provide meals, provide general oversight, activities – like what a retirement community has become today. What has evolved over the years is the way long-term care has changed. The care needs are much higher as people are waiting longer to move.

The other thing that has changed tremendously is memory care. Thirty years ago, memory care didn’t exist like it does today. We didn’t see as many people with memory issues for whatever reason, and there was a lack of understanding what dementia and dementia care were all about. Today we know much more, and the care is very individualized. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. It requires what I like to refer to as a “boutique” approach to care, versus the old “cookie cutter” model. And that’s a unique way of looking at things that is changing the industry and making it challenging for facilities that still do things the old way, especially larger ones that have a lot of residents.

4.  What is your advice to families with an aging parent or loved one?

If you’re thinking about making a change for a loved one, try to plan early versus having to make an immediate decision and not being able to think it through clearly. And that’s hard to do, it’s very hard to bring up with family members. There’s a role reversal going on.

One of the biggest comments I get is, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to start, this is all so new to me.” Seek advice, don’t be afraid to ask questions, or be afraid to say, “I need your help.”

Even though residents have anxieties at first, within a reasonable amount of time all these issues are settled for them. They feel better. They look better. They’re eating better. They’re taking their medications properly. Life is good. For the family members, the classic comment is, “Why didn’t I do this much sooner?” Because they see what a difference it makes in their loved one’s life, and in their lives.

5.  So in the long run things are much better, but it must be hard for family members in the beginning.

There can be feelings of guilt. The family members struggle with “I always promised I wouldn’t do this,” but for this generation, the customers we are serving now, their memories are sparked by communities in the 70’s and early 80’s that were more institutional. Their idea of assisted living is not very good. It has a negative connotation.

We try to educate people so they know what to look for, like how do you feel when you go in, is everybody smiling, do the residents look happy, what do they say about the food, what do they say about the care in general. We offer free information on our website that anyone can use, wherever they decide to go.

So get out and visit, take tours. Ask questions. Educate yourself so you can make a good decision if the need arises.