Sunrise Senior Living: Growing Green Practices at Communities

Sunrise Senior Living - LogoIn an earlier article, I highlighted the growing trend of retirement communities adopting green practices, and Sunrise Senior Living was one of the senior living providers featured. In this article, I am highlighting other green practices found at their communities.  

Sunrise Senior Living is already a leader in energy-saving efforts, with 33 communities receiving ENERGY STAR© certification and all of their 248 communities in the United States entered into the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Portfolio Manager to track energy usage, but there are other measures this company embraces to reduce their environmental footprint and enhance the lives of their residents.

Replacing outdated equipment with the latest technology and the “best of the best” is how Jim Shaffer, director of maintenance and capital programs, describes Sunrise’s philosophy when renovating or upgrading communities. While the upfront costs might be higher, in the long run the company sees a substantial return on investment that results in reduced costs due to decreased consumption of resources, whether it is energy or water.

Sunrise of Plano's Associate Executive Director Sharon Demarest

Sunrise of Plano’s Associate Executive Director Sharon Demarest showing off the community’s herb and flower garden.

With communities typically spanning four to five acres, of which half to one third is devoted to landscaping, that is quite a bit of green space to maintain. This is one reason why Sunrise decided to explore the use of a smart lawn irrigation system to manage their watering. The system determines the watering schedules and volumes using the previous days’ rainfall totals that are provided via satellite. Two years ago, this system was installed at several communities and the investment is paying off, with Shaffer saying they have seen “significant water savings.”

Sunrise is also willing to invest in new technology if it improves their residents’ living spaces. “Creating that sense of home” is important and lighting plays a role in creating a comfortable feeling, says Shaffer. Four to five years ago, Sunrise made the switch from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which saved a significant amount of energy, says Andy Coelho, senior vice president of facilities, and now we are investing in light emitting diode (LED) lights since the technology has proven itself and creates the aesthetics we are looking for. Shaffer adds that LEDs are now more affordable.

Sunrise of Plano's Gardening Club

Sunrise of Plano’s Garden Club enjoying an afternoon of gardening.

Despite the value of these energy-saving practices, they are often unnoticed by residents. However, there are other more visible ways that Sunrise greens up its communities—efforts that are inspired by their residents. At Sunrise of Plano in Texas, the herb and flower garden is an integral part of the community and is a special place for a lot of residents, says Sharon Demarest, the community’s associate executive director.

Though residents started the garden five years ago, its importance had diminished until being resurrected by Demarest and other residents two years ago. The garden is near and dear to my heart and is special for a lot of residents, Demarest says. With the garden having raised beds, residents can easily water and weed the herbs and flowers, and the maintenance staff performs the heavier duty work.

Sunrise of Plano's Gardening Club hard at work.

Filling the beds are the staple culinary herbs of basil, rosemary, sage and parsley. Lavender is also grown along with blackberries and blueberries. Drying the herbs allows their use year-round in dishes served in the community dining room, and they also served as inspiration for the lemony basil salmon roasted beet-couscous salad dish featured in the 4th annual Taste of Sunrise Recipes from the Heart and Home,says Demarest.

Sunrise of Webb Gin's Mary Hiers

Sunrise of Webb Gin’s Mary Hiers earned NWF wildlife habitat certification for her community.

She is proud that the garden inspires a sense of community amongst all residents and staff and serves a purpose beyond just lifting spirits. The community’s activity director uses it for social programming and activities, since gardening not only keeps residents active but the plants can also serve as cues, which are important for memory care residents. It’s such a happy place with residents working in the garden, collaborating and having fun; it’s truly a joy, Demarest says.

At the Webb Gin community in Georgia, it was the efforts of resident Mary Hiers that made residents and staff more aware of their garden’s importance as habitat for local wildlife. “I just love the outdoors…the environment has always been important to me,” Hiers says. As the former director of the Fernbank Science Center, Hiers spent her life connecting children and their parents to the natural world around them, and she continues this even in her retirement.

Sunrise of Webb Gin's garden is enjoyed by residents year-round.

Tending the garden is a favorite pastime of residents.

Upon joining Webb Gin, she noticed that the landscape provided habitat, food, water and shelter, the four elements needed to provide habitat for wildlife. “The property is beautiful,” Hiers says, of the campus that has walking paths through the landscaped grounds and a retention pond that plays host for many birds. Favorite resident activities are walking along the paths and bird watching.

Sunrise of Webb Gin's garden is enjoyed by both families and residents.

The landscaped grounds are enjoyed by residents throughout the year.

Knowing of the National Wildlife Federation certified wildlife habitat program, she decided to earn certification for Webb Gin. Executive Director Carla Cooper assisted Hiers in filling out the application, and they received certification in 2013. But Heirs didn’t stop there.

To develop the educational component of the walking trail, such as describing how the plants contributed to providing habitat, she reached out to a dear friend, who also happened to be a successful grant writer, to write a grant for signs that could be placed alongside the 150 plants located around the community.

Sunrise of Webb Gin's garden is well tended by residents.

Her friend wrote an award-winning grant and the signs were erected later that year. While educating residents  is the primary reason of the signs, there is another beneficial use that these signs provide. Recall exercises are good for our brains, and the community therapist uses the plants and signs in recall exercises, Hiers says.

Another important sign is the National Wildlife Federation certification sign that prompts visitors to ask what it means. “Families see the sign and ask about it,” she says, and based upon the questions she answers, she thinks news about backyard certification is spreading, something she is pleased to see.

Smiles are always found in Sunrise of Webb Gin's garden.

Inspired by seeing raised beds at a nursing home, Hiers is exploring whether raised beds could be built at Webb Gin so disabled residents can also participate in gardening. And she is also instrumental in planning an Earth Day program with Jenohn Carter, the activities and volunteer coordinator. Residents will plant a Golden Raintree to replace one that died earlier and have the opportunity to hear local master gardeners talk about gardening.

Sunrise of Webb Gin is surrounded by NWF certified landscaped grounds.

Though Hiers takes the initiative to spearhead these environmental efforts, she credits that Webb Gin staff for their support, saying “we have the most awesome director.” And because she loves what she is doing, Hiers doesn’t see ending her work anytime soon; “I’ll go to my grave being a teacher.”

Andrea Watts is a Seattle-based freelance writer who covers sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWestThe Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

2 Responses to “Sunrise Senior Living: Growing Green Practices at Communities”

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