Shortly after setting foot inside one of the single-story homes at New Vista Ranch, I’m greeted by Henry. He’s 36 years old, with light brown hair and blue eyes, and he has Down syndrome. He shakes my hand and pats my shoulder, and invites me to see his room.
It’s a quiet, clean bedroom with a blue bedspread—but what he really wants me to see are the posters: Pro wrestlers, wall-to-wall. There’s even a WWF championship belt. Henry smiles as he points to the collection—his bedroom in this comfy 2,400-square-foot home is a clear source of pride.
New Vista Ranch sits on 15 acres donated by the Gilcrease brothers near their namesake orchard in the northwest Valley. Since 1990, the ranch has consisted of four single-story houses around a tree-shaded courtyard. Each is home to a house manager and six people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
In October, the nonprofit will break ground on the state’s first house specifically for senior citizens with such disabilities—a population that’s growing as life expectancy has increased. Nationwide, health professionals estimate that more than a half million adults over the age of 60 have developmental disabilities. Life expectancies have been increasing thanks to better medical care, better rehabilitation programs and the kind of improved self-help skills taught by programs such as New Vista. (The rapid improvement in life expectancy for people with Down syndrome is a powerful illustration of the trend: A 2002 study published in Lancet showed that it increased from 25 years in 1983 to almost 50 in 1997.)
With growing life expectancy comes the need for more specialized health care; this fall, New Vista will begin construction at the ranch of a 3,800-square-foot medical facility for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. Touro University’s osteopathic medical school will help design the clinic and develop a medical internship program, making the New Vista Medical Clinic and Physician Training Program one of the first in the nation to teach health-care professionals how to deal with the specific needs of the intellectually disabled. New Vista also plans to provide Web-based training for physicians nationwide.
The clinic will be open to the public and able to offer 6,000 medical appointments per year. It’s scheduled to be operating by next summer.
Soon after I met Henry in one of the New Vista ranch homes, I sat down in the living room with Michelle Jackson, New Vista’s director of development, to talk about the projects. The houses are like any other—behind the TV are backgammon and Wii games; in the kitchen is a list of chores. Residents complete the chores each week under the guidance of a trained house manager, who also has a room on site. “We focus on teaching people how to become more independent,” Jackson says.
Many people shy away from this community, Jackson says, because they don’t understand the disabilities. The nuances and varying needs among the groups New Vista serves can confound even seasoned medical professionals (see box). But in the end, one need is universal.
“What you really have to have to interact is just a capacity to love and a desire to help,” Jackson says. “If we can change the way physicians think about this population, we can change the way society thinks.”