03/13/2012 03:23 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

Why Can't We Age Gracefully, Live Life Large and Die in Our Own Flower Beds?

I was raised to believe when you see someone hurting or in need, you stop what you're doing and help. It may be continuous one time events that cross our paths or it could be the occasional life altering one that inspires us to risk much in the hopes that we can make a lasting difference in the lives of others; changes that will inadvertently bless us in the process.

I remember, one such encounter over twenty years ago, with an elementary school teacher in my hometown that showcased the burdens struggling, working parents were having during the Christmas holidays. Children between the ages of 4 and 12 were falling between the cracks at Christmas because their parents were having a tough time making ends meet every day, let alone being able to splurge on gifts from "Santa."

We were fortunate with the help of my Rotary Club to establish a Santa's Kids program that allowed individuals to adopt entire families to share their Christmas with. We dressed up as Santa's helper's and elves and delivered anonymously, reaping joy beyond measure while reinforcing the scripture, "it more blessed to give than receive." Because giving is contagious, this program has continued to grow and thrive and reaches over 300 children, year after year.

The latest dream I have undertaken is to create a "not for profit" senior living and memory care campus that promotes actively living and thriving beyond the walls, rather than existing within them. Did you know that living, dining and thriving outside in the warming rays of the sun is Biblical based? Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 states "Light is sweet and it pleases the eye to see the sun. However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all."

My father in law suffered from early onset dementia. His passion, besides his work, was gardening and in this he thrived long after retirement as long as he was able to be outdoors. As he aged far away from family, his need to be close necessitated his moving near us and into a very nice assisted living facility. As time passed, his opportunities to enjoy the outdoors became less and less. Within a year, he passed. Much can be debated as to why, but I firmly believe once his passions were stripped away, he went from living to existing to non-existing. Quality of life has to supersede quantity, does it not? We are not privileged to know the time of our exit from this earth, but I personally, would choose to go out in the middle of living life large, having fun and using every opportunity made available to me.

Closer still, within this same time frame, was my very vivacious and active sister who encountered a life altering illness that forced her indoors and stopped her ninety mile per minute lifestyle. Each time I visited her, you could see her regressing, knowing that life as she lived it had come to an abrupt halt. Her choice to live alone limited her ability to move freely outdoors without someone being there to assist. There was, however, one continuing bright spot that remained and that was the joy her flowers and bird feeders brought her, just beyond the walls. When we took her outside, she glowed by having the opportunity to tend them, up close and with a personal touch.

In the world of today where all things are possible, why can't we provide all who choose to do so, the ability to grow old with grace, embracing and enjoying all that life has to offer beyond the walls? This burden has become my quest and I have pledged my all to create such a facility where walls are no longer obstacles, but gateways to the world and the beauty of the landscape that lies beyond them.

Many senior living properties today have beautiful, well maintained landscapes and ornately fenced memory gardens, yet I can count on one hand the number of residents I have ever seen using them. Inviting landscapes have been created to attract those on the outside looking in, but not for those on the inside longing out.

According to Dr. John Zeisel, a sociologist and co-founder of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, "Time outdoors, an essential aspect of his Healing Gardens, affects the chiasmatic nuclei -- the region of the brain that keeps time and regulates the body's circadian rhythm." He says sunlight affects the nuclei, helping patients capture a sense of season and time. In addition to helping regulate mood and sleep cycles, the gardens extend into daily life at his facilities. Staff members incorporate garden produce into cooking classes, and patients use flowers as props and inspiration in writing and painting classes. Thankfully, here is one doctor that gets it, as well.

Expounding on Dr. Zeisel's props, I would want to consider opening up the campus seasonally, just on weekends, where our residents could show and sell what they grow, paint and create using their many talents. This too would be an opportunity to engage and socialize with the community, as well as actively contribute to it.

I have encountered countless arguments as to the additional liability and labor costs that would be required to operate such a facility. In an age of constant cutbacks and reimbursements, facilities today are struggling to maintain status quo on fewer and fewer dollars. I sense in my talks with many in the health care field, it is easier, safer and in the end more profitable to contain our seniors in a controlled indoor space, than to give them the freedom to thrive outdoors.

My polling of residents, from Tennessee to South Carolina to Nova Scotia and beyond, if given the choice, would choose to live outdoors as much as possible. The number one detriment, according to various staff members of these same facilities, is when residents are outdoors no one wants to come back in.

Technology has advanced in the last few years to the point that we can safely and effectively provide residents an opportunity to thrive beyond the walls, using cameras, monitors and GPS tracking devises if necessary. Most staff members, I am sure, would relish the opportunity to rotate in and outdoors as well. We have within our grasp the ability to make it happen today.

Studies show that proper diets, along with regular 30 minute walks, just three times per week enhances our overall quality of life, with our seniors receiving the most benefit. Being outdoors just 10 minutes a day promotes production of Vitamin D, the anti-aging vitamin. If given the opportunity to spend your golden years actively outdoors as much as possible or in a quiet corner of a room or hallway, which would you, choose?

For me, again I choose living life large as long as I am able and when my time comes, let it be on a putting green with my "betters," on a walking trail with my friends, in a garden of roses and hummingbirds with my children or beside a fishing hole with my grandchildren. That to me is living and thriving, not just existing and biding my time.

Forgive me, but herein lies my dilemma. Over the last three years, financial institutions, along with the powers that be, have committed to our project, but as of late have been reluctant to jump all in, because I have yet to show them long term viability in light of today's economy. We have provided an abundance of gardens, ponds stocked with fish, waterfalls and streams; over two miles of paved and gravel walking trails, greenhouses and twenty five landscaped acres on which to create such a senior living campus. What I've not been able to show them is how many other people, other than me and a few kindred spirits, would embrace living in such a facility.

So here's your chance to assist me like my Rotary Club did with my Santa's Kids many years ago. Tell me if I'm dreaming too big a dream in light of our current economy. If we can make facilities like these safe and affordable, would they appeal to you or your parents? Would you embrace it as a place to age with grace and dignity, a place where you would welcome your friends and family and encourage them to actively participate with you in your activities?

I would appreciate your comments, your feedback and most of all your prayers. People come together when given opportunities to be part of the greater good. Email me at

This dream is far bigger than me. If we can, by God's grace, see it come to fruition based on your comments, hopefully other senior living properties in your own hometowns will consider expanding their services beyond the walls, as well. At some point in time during the course of our lives, we are now or will be, actively swimming up this stream together.