Seniors Thrive at Summerset Assisted Living

For the past 10 years, Summerset Assisted Living has provided a home, 24-hour care and love to its residents. Earlier this year, co-owner Mack Willis received a Metro Atlanta Business Person of the Year Award.

Natural light flooded the room where an elderly man sat in a wheelchair with his back turned.

 He sat just inside glass doors, seemingly ignoring the jazz music playing in the background, as his gaze landed on the lush greenery and colorful flowers that took center stage on the facility’s landscape.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he said, his words barely audible.

Still, a man sitting a few feet away in a corner understood his words and quickly agreed.

For a moment their conversation meandered between the past and the present. Then, the man in the wheel chair turned to look at the receptionist sitting behind a brown desk. He asked her the time.

It was 11:48 a.m.

He turned back, his gaze again reaching beyond the concrete walls to take in the scenery several feet out of his reach beyond doors that required a key pad access code. He slipped into a melody.

“I’m hungry, I’m hungry. I want something good to eat. I’m hungry, I’m hungry. I need to get my teeth.”

With that, he wheeled around and headed to his room.

The man was one of 90 residents at   – a 90,000 square-foot facility that had become home to senior citizens who could no longer live alone, or who no longer wanted to be alone.

Most of them have illnesses that range from being blind or deaf to dementia or Alzheimer’s. A few were bedridden and in hospice care.

Some were reluctant to leave their homes and their lives of independence. Others entered the facility on Benjamin E. Mays Drive with a sense of foreboding – they were coming there to die.

But that changed as they settled into their lives at Summerset where their days were soon filled with activities, devotions and the chance to make new friends.

There are more than 36,000 assisted living communities in the United States providing a broad range of services, activities, and amenities. There are hundreds in Georgia.

But there was only one in southwest Atlanta.

And more than 10 years ago when one family needed a place to put their loved one, there was none. And so the idea for building Summerset was conceived.


A Life to Remember

It was in the early 1980s when Mack Willis packed up his family and left Atlanta to go to New Jersey to take on a new position at IBM Corp.

With their belongings still packed away in boxes, the couple only two days into a rental home, and Willis nervous about his new job, Gwen Willis went into labor a month early.

Helpless and with another child depending on him, the IBM employee needed help.  His mind rushing, there was only one person he could call. He reached for his phone.

Her name was Lois Withrow Wright – a retired nurse nationally-recognized for her efforts in the development of the first premature Center, established before federal funding was available, according to the family.

Built in an inner-city community, the unit took the infant mortality rate from 50% to 6% within a year, Willis said.

From her home in White Plains, NY, the petite 77-year-old answered the phone.

“Aunt Lois, I’m in trouble.”

In a rush of words, Willis explained about the move, his wife giving birth and the new job.

“I’m just getting into this new job and it’s a challenge,” Willis stumbled on. “I need to make a good impression.”

He didn’t need to worry, Wright assured him.

“As of this phone call, Gwen and the new baby and Mack Jr. will be my responsibility. You go and focus on your job,” Wright said. Her voice and her words had the right effect. “When she leaves the hospital, I will bring the family to New York to live with me.”

They would stay with Wright and her husband, James, for six weeks while Willis worked, unpacked and got the home ready for his enlarged family.

Nine months later when he was promoted to work in the company’s corporate headquarters In New York, they built a home in Chappaqua and were now 20 minutes away from the Wrights. They went to church together almost every Sunday, had brunch and would go to different events during the week.

For Wright, who had no children of her own, they had become her family.

“She had such a warm, sweet spirit, such a caring nature,” Gwen Willis said. “You would sit and talk to her and it was almost as if you were doing her the favor and she would be the one doing the favor for you.”

In 1989, a job reassignment brought the family back to Atlanta. But the couple never forgot what Wright did for them. So when her husband died in December of that year, the couple insisted she moved to Georgia to stay with them.

“Family could be no closer than what she was to us,” Willis said.

Still after a couple of months, Wright longed for a home of her own and they found her a three-bedroom house in College Park.

And for a while, everything was fine.

But then they noticed Wright’s short term memory was slipping. She was losing weight, forgetting to get her newspaper and mixing up schedules.

They hired help, but within a year she went through five different caregivers. They needed a more stable solution. They placed her in an independent living facility in Dunwoody. Still, Wright longed to be nearer to her friends in southwest Atlanta.

“But there were no facilities at the time, so Gwen and I decided find the land and build one,” Willis, 55, said. “She was so wonderful to us, we needed to help her now.”


The Beginning of a Legacy

It was Gwen Willis who noticed the white sign sticking out of a Kudzu Patch one Sunday.

Though they had found a 2-acre land to build the facility and were in the process of closing, they realized the land was too narrow to fit their dream.

This overgrown land was three times bigger. It was perfect. Gwen Willis took the sign and placed it in the car.

The next day they tracked down the owner, former President Jimmy Carter’s personal attorney, and told him the story about Aunt Lois.

The attorney offered them the property for the same price they planned to pay for the 2 acres.

But their worries were far from over.

Residents from the community attempted to derail the couple’s plans to build the facility.

It will cause a traffic jam, one complained. It will increase the crime rate, another argued.

They had to get the approval of the members of the neighborhood planning committee, the zoning review board and the Fulton County City Council.

But the couple and their sons, Mack Willis, Jr. and James, made sure they did their homework, each assigned a task that included reading books, surfing the Internet and attending conferences and conventions about assisted living facilities.

Eighteen months later they were approved and with a loan from the Small Business Association for $5 million, they began building. In 2001, the then-46-room facility was ready for the first resident.

“Aunt Lois was out first client,” Mack Willis said. He recalled his aunt’s reaction as she toured the facility.

“You guys did all this for me?” Wright beamed at the smiling couple.

“Absolutely,” Mack Willis said. “You were wonderful to us.”

“I can’t use this whole building. Why don’t you let some other people stay here too.”

The couple laughed.

“That’s a great idea, Aunt Lois,” Mack Willis said.


The Residents’ Life

A group of women stood outside a resident’s room, trying to get her to come out. But it was the anniversary of her husband’s death and the woman refused to budge.

Seeing the group outside the door, Gwen Willis asked a nurse what was going on. The women were taking care of it, the nurse told her.

The woman kept trying to tell them about what she and her husband did. The women insisted she come out of her room.

After about 20 minutes of laughter, silence and chatter, the woman gave in.

Summerset had the scene of a college life with movies and popcorns on Fridays, monthly birthday parties and hanging out with friends.

There was also a place for solitude while taking a morning stroll along the fenced-in facility’s walkways or gardens.

Murleen Blair chose an area with a view of the courtyard to sit and read a book one Monday afternoon.

Blair’s sons wanted their 83-year-old mother from Patterson, NJ, closer to them, and suggested Summerset. She moved in shortly after Wright.

“They told me it was owned and ran by black folks,” said Blair, a retired school teacher. “I was not disappointed at all. What I like by far is it’s ours. It’s well-kept. The grasses are always cut and the people are nice. If you see someone 10 times a day, they still say hi.”

And then there were the owners who knew all the residents’ names and their stories.

“When you pass the owners, they say hello like everyone else. You wouldn’t think it belonged to them.”

As far as Mack Willis was concerned, the facility with its six dining rooms and six therapeutic kitchens belonged to the residents.

“They can go anywhere. This is their house,” he said.

In three years, the 46 rooms were full with 18 people on a waiting list. It was time to expand. By 2007 there were 107 suites with temperature control and night lights.

There was also a 4,000-square-foot multipurpose room named in honor of Lois Wright.

The residents pay upwards of $2,000 to $4,000 months. More than half were retired educators and about 70 percent were from other states.

Assisted Living facilities under state law can’t get government funding. Some of the residents have long term care policies that help pay for their stay. Veterans and widows of veterans also receive monthly payments from the Veterans Administration, Willis said.

With three meals a day and healthy snacks whenever they wanted it, the residents had three chefs who prepare home style dishes and cater to those with special dietary needs.

With church every Sunday, exercise every morning and games every afternoon, the residents lead a scheduled life.

And with a staff of 65 people and a payroll that exceeds $1 million, the residents are ensured round-the clock care that include a 24-hour emergency call system, scheduled transportation to outside activities as well as housekeeping and laundry services.

It’s one of things Mildred Walton loved about her move to Summerset.

Walton and her husband, Borah, were the only couple at Summerset. They have been there since Valentine’s Day.

Walton, 84, said she had grown tired of going to the market weekly for grocery, washing, cleaning and doing everything by herself.

“It was a pleasure to move in,” Mildred Walton said. “Our door was decorated, our names were on the door. It was so welcoming.”

Summerset care givers make sure the residents are bathed, dressed and well-groomed. Nurses administer their medications, assist with toiletry and help those in wheel chair get around.

The residents are entertained weekly by community and church groups; and two to three times a year, Summerset hosts a wine and cheese party with live jazz and a catered meal.

For Christmas, they hold a Christmas tree ceremony and hire a 50-piece orchestra to entertain the residents and their family.

Gwen Willis’ mother, Leola Hankerson, now stays at the facility and has been for the past 16 months.

“We were concerned about building a home that meets the needs of family members and we are still doing that as well as meeting the needs of others who need the service,” Mack Willis said.

Hankerson, 89, and Wright had become friends and would attend morning devotions together.

Last Christmas, Hankerson watched as Wright rolled across the floor with her grandson, James, pushing her wheelchair.

“The premature baby she brought home escorted her to turn on the Christmas tree light,” Mack Willis said. “That was her last Christmas here.”

In February, Wright died in her chosen room, which overlooked the courtyard filled with flowers, a fountain and a goldfish pond.


Additional Information. As you consider care options for your loved one, you can rest assured that Summerset’s premiere community is one where guests will enjoy an environment that makes them feel at home. Learn more about Summerset Atlanta assisted living.

Don’t forget to follow us on social media and sign-up for our blog to stay up to date.

Your Home Away from Home | Located in Atlanta, Georgia, Summerset Assisted Living Community is focused on providing top quality, excellent, compassionate care for those we serve. Schedule a tour today or give us a call at (470) 231-2357!