Jay Leo, president of Beaverton-based senior living company Touchmark, tells a story about his 73-year-old mother. She resides in a retirement community where one night a neighbor called with a medical emergency. The neighbor didn’t want to bother her children, who were busy with young families. So Leo’s mother took the neighbor to the hospital and stayed until 3 a.m. The health crisis passed and the two friends headed home.

“It does become like a second family,” Leo says of senior communal living. “My mother acted almost like a family member.”

During the pandemic, when senior housing has been tightly protected, relationships with peers on the inside have become even more vital.

“Even the most independent individual needs a social fabric to lean upon and contribute to,” said Leo. “That is one of the benefits of senior living.”

Leo added that companies like Touchmark, founded by Werner Nistler Jr. of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, value the importance of community and relationships. Staff, he explained, take care of housekeeping and other chores so seniors can focus on fun and social engagement.

“If I had nickel for every time I have heard someone say, ‘If we had just moved sooner,’” Leo said.

Cynthia and Phil Barr, members of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, operate Prima Vista Properties, three small homes for seniors. Each house has five residents.

“They do become a close-knit family,” said Cynthia. “If one isn’t at a meal, people say, ‘Where is so and so?’ They keep a close eye on one another.”

When a new resident is moving in, the Barrs often hear family members say, “He likes to keep to himself,” or “She will mostly eat in her room.” But almost always, residents eventually show up for meals and events and seem happier. Sometimes the change is dramatic.

One man had been in a rehabilitation center where he would neither speak nor get out of bed. When someone approached, he’d pull the covers over his head. Counselors could not get him to emerge.

But six months after moving into a Prima Vista home, he was walking up and down the hall, greeting his housemates and going on field trips.

One woman was in a rehabilitation facility with an injured hip when her husband died at home unexpectedly. She went into a depression and refused to eat. After moving to a small home with the Barrs, she slowly healed and began eating three times a day with her new housemates, including dessert. She took two walks a day a nearby park

“The family told us it was a miracle, that we gave her back her life,” Cynthia said. “We credit the relationships, the consistency of them, and having someone who cares about you. Having someone who takes time to listen makes them feel loved.”

At Prima Vista, the kinship formed in the new little extended families can spill out into service for the wider community. Our Lady of the Lake Parish has a large ministry that provides 1,500 to 2,000 meals per week to needy people in the Portland area. Prima Vista residents help make the sack lunches.

“They were so enthusiastic,” said Cynthia. “Everybody took part.”

One resident, a retired two-star general, spent a morning putting applesauce into bags. Another Prima Vista crew helped deliver bags to a downtown mission.

“This generation is used to giving,” Cynthia said.

Shunta Gray, administrator of Assumption Village in North Portland, said that residents do see each other as family and that hearts open up over time. Some love group activities while others prefer one-to-one conversations. Gray has seen loneliness on the rise during the pandemic, when residents had to eat in their rooms. She is glad that communal meals are about to start again as Assumption residents receive their second round of COVID-19 vaccines.

Gray said that one great advantage at a Catholic center like Assumption Village is regular Mass, when Catholics and non-Catholics alike form the strongest of bonds through communal worship.

edl@catholicsentinel.org