Inspired by Her Mother, WV Woman Revolutionized Long-Term Care For Elderly

Dec 24, 2015

Keren Brown Wilson of War, WV says it all started with her mom, Jessie.  At just age 55, Jessie had a stoke that confined her to nursing homes for the next decade.

“She was poor, so she was a Medicaid client, and that meant not very many choices for her,” explained Brown Wilson.

At the time Wilson told her mother she was planning on a career in gerontology, the study of older adults and aging.

Keren Brown Wilson of McDowell County is often referred to as the Mother of Assisted Living by elder care professionals.
Credit Jean Snedegar

“Well, why aren’t you doing something to help people like me?” asked Jessie.

This turned out to be a defining moment for the young woman who would go on and establish the assisted living model of long term care in this country – and the world.

Known in the field of elder care as the Mother of Assisted Living, Keren Brown Wilson, the McDowell County native, is one of 4 national leaders profiled in West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inspiring West Virginians radio special, airing Monday, Dec. 28 at 8pm.

Now 66-years-old, Wilson’s story is featured in the book Being Mortal by Boston surgeon Atul Gawande.  It’s been on The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, and it tells the story of how Wilson revolutionized the way millions of older people live.

“Nursing homes were really stripped-down hospitals. People were in a ward.  They were literally in a bed,” said Wilson. “They were told when to go to bed.  They were told when to get up.  They were told what to eat.”

“They were told what they could do and what they couldn’t do – and they really had no autonomy. They had no say in their lives.  And that was very dehumanizing.”

After becoming a professor of gerontology at Portland State University, Wilson’s idea was to bring health care services to the elderly in low income housing – allowing those seniors to remain at home.

But she couldn’t get money from the state of Oregon to help pay for the services.  The only services Medicaid would help pay were those in traditional nursing homes.

In addition, authorities believed that residents would be unsafe if they had more control of their lives. 

But Wilson and her husband Michael DeShane, also a gerontologist, believed they could create a safe place for elders where they felt life was worth living.  They borrowed several million dollars to build a facility.

“No one really believed it could be done. And no one thought that we could give nursing care in a
non-nursing setting,” remembers Wilson. “No one believed that people would be safe. I mean people were convinced that it would kill people."

Against the odds, they succeeded.  And the concept of assisted living – or more specifically Wilson’s vision of it – was born.   Not only did that early facility serve lower income people for a flat rate, the pilot study showed that residents had better health outcomes than those who lived in nursing homes. 

This new model of care for the elderly got lots of national media coverage.  Shortly after, Wilson was approached by investors from Wall Street to take the idea public.  For the next few years she oversaw the building of hundreds of assisted living facilities across the U.S., with 3000 employees in 18 states.

It’s now the model worldwide.

By the end of the 1990s, Wilson left the world of corporate assisted living and started a foundation. The  Jessie F. Richardson Foundation is named after her mother and assists underserved elders in the U.S. and around the world. 

“I would like to be remembered as someone who cared, who cared about those who had less than they needed to live comfortably,” said Wilson.

“From a religious perspective, there is the perspective that those for whom much is given, much is expected.  That definitely is a lesson I learned in childhood,” she said.

“We always are able to do more than we think we can. And I just want to do as much as I can.”  

Editor’s note:  Enjoy the stories of more than 2 dozen Inspiring West Virginians during an encore presentation of all 6 programs, Dec. 29 – Dec. 31, beginning at 8pm on West Virginia Public Radio.