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Buena Vista Manor House quietly assists the Haights elderly Posted on 05 May 2009
By Paula Poortinga

Buena Vista Park Hinges the Haight-Ashbury to the Lower Haight, and hosts some of the best look out points towards the Bay. Up until my acquaintance with the Buena Vista Manor House I was adequately in awe of the vista. But having seen the incredible view of Red Rock Hill which they privilege met the life-long San Franciscans who reside there, and had an introduction to the community they've formed, I find myself once again awed by San Francisco.

During the hike up to Buena Vista Manor House, at 399 Buena Vista Ave E, the feeling of serenity permeated through the park and around the homes on the circle drive. The Manor grounds, in San Francisco fashion, are detailed with flora regalia, no doubt the pride of the green thumbed landscaper Manor Director David R. Wall emerged from his office at a quick pace to greet me. Extending his hand he offered a friendly, firm handshake and apologized for the strange first impression I must have had. He wasn't referring to the garden. Rather a small group of SFPD deputies conversing with an anonymous guest, politely convincing him to excuse himself from the facility.

Obviously I was a bit surprised to see this upon entering the Manor House. But to the contrary, considering the residents sprinkled around the scene, planted with walker or wheel chair, eyes affixed on the situation, it must've been somewhat exciting, a break in the routine, and I thought nothing of it. Mr. Wall suggested I wait in the lounge and he'd be with me shortly. I weaved around the residents whom I passed by seemingly unnoticed, and proceeded to the lounge and patio with a view.

From the deck Red Rock Hill is braced in the foreground, Sutro Tower to the West, the Bay, Oakland, and Berkeley Hills to the East. The Buena Vista Manor House originally was the College of Nursing to St. Josephs hospital, which opened during the World War II. The former hospital is next door, and the two buildings were joined by underground walkways. Later it was a condo building, and in the 1984 a few private doctors found this site fit to house seniors. I learned it was somewhat challenging for the neighborhood to accept the property conversion into an assisted living facility, but ultimately it was a successful endeavor, the gorgeous view and authentic art deco building are deserved gifts to the areas senior citizens who call this place home.

The foyer debacle quietly, cordially ended and I reenter the lounge. Settling down to their seats the residents casually resumed their morning, softly chatting, reading the paper, reclining for a quick nap, and now wondering who this woman with the camera was or belonged to. In an attempt to blend in and be courteous I started up a conversation with Henry, a baseball capped gentleman sitting near the French window who seemed to share my admiration of the view. We chatted for a bit on the subject and then Mr. Wall joined us for a formal introduction.

Like children announcing their age, it seems seniors do the same in their golden years. The first thing I learned about Henry is he is 98 years old and will be 99 in October. He moved to San Francisco when he was a young man starting his life and new family. He opened a bakery in the Mission District and later another in the Haight-Ashbury.

He said he closed them "when the hippies took over." He is polite and very articulate. Mr. Wall said that up until last year when Henry applied for residency at age 97, he was driving himself around in his old car.

The Buena Vista Manor House is strictly an assisted living establishment and to qualify for residency applicants must provide a physicians health report, have a TB test, and be over the age of 60, roughly.

Mr. Wall has been the Buena Vista Manor House director for 18 years. He describes to me how he happily fell into the position, found his niche, and how "everyday is different." We officially start the tour, passing residents along the way, and Mr. Wall addresses everyone by their first name as they do to him. They exchange jokes, stories, and a few residents seem to enjoy light jabs with their resident Director. "I love working with seniors; I could never be a [school]teacher, Wall boasts. It'd be hard to mistake the enjoyment Wall takes in his job. He seems relatable with everyone in his house, residents and staff alike. Currently the Buena Vista Manor House is home to 68 residents and employs 43 staff members.

Like Wall, there is longevity in the Staff. Some of the caregivers have been there since 1987, and the night shift front desk clerk has held the position since 1986. Together they make this a peaceful and accommodating home to the residents.

Through the week the seniors can participate in a number of activities including Tuesday tea, Bingo Thursday, Friday entertainment, and cocktail hour. The SPCA visits twice a week, bringing adoptive pets with them for some one on one time with the residents. "The really like animals," Wall notes.

There are two outings a month planned and available for sign-up. Previous field trips include a Three Bridge Tour, a drive up Mt. Tarnalpais, and a trip to Half Moon Bay to pick out pumpkins suitable for carving jack-o-lanterns last Halloween. On Mondays and Tuesdays the in-house beauty salon becomes Hazels Hair, with services offered a la carte.

Then there is the day-to-day sensibility that makes life in the Manor House comfortable. Three nutritious meals are served through the day at 8 a. m., noon, and 5 p.m. The residents are offered a short menu of choices, but they can have pretty much anything they want. The dining room is open and bright, with fresh linen tablecloths, napkins, and flowers.

China clinks as waiters bustle setting the tables for lunch. In here the atmosphere is arranged with an ambiance. Likewise for the lounge, which is the most social room in the Manor House, with easy chairs, large bouquets, and a fireplace. The Library is quiet and lovely. Residents can reserve it for private gathering with guests. And the activities room, adjacent to the tea room, hosts its residents on this afternoon to an exercise routine led by the Activities Manager, who is also reading newspaper articles from the daily publications. Residents add their individual touch to living at the Buena Vista Manor House by personalizing their rooms. They first choose what kind of room they'd like to occupy: a single studio, one bedroom apartment, or shared apartment for two. Then they are encouraged to bring their own furniture and truly make it feel like home. Peeking into a few rooms I was reminded of my grandparents house. needle point framed on the walls, oil paintings, afghans and quilts, a box of tissue on the side table, next to the recliner, in front of the seventeen inch television; all individual rooms for the individual comforts of long life.

And just like life today, the Buena Vista Manor House and it's residents have to deal with the effects of the economic deflation. A few residents have recently moved on to live with family members. Many people get their money from investments and a lot of investment money has gone down. Realism is the savior to this community. Most house members lived during the depression; they've been through worse times.

Overall Wall believes his facility is a venue to celebrate life. "You work with immortality," he explains as our interview settles now to his office. It isn't hard to listen and observe. This is the basis of decision-making along with his intuition that has enabled the close community around him to form.

The explanation of the earlier foyer occurrence is also revealed. This supposed guest was not known and when initially asked to leave would not go, thus the help from the local authority. Protecting his community is his first priority and Wall exercised his obligation.

Being receptive has taught him a lot, and he still learns from his residents by the wealth of age and history they bring with them. I take the cue to speak with several ladies chatting in a sunny nook.

Mrs. Alley was the wife of a famous San Francisco jazz musician, and her brother in law has a road named after him near AT&T Park. She's been all over the U.S., but she loves San Francisco. "You can't beat nothing out here," she said. "Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, they're all fine, nice to visit. But I plant myself right here, in San Francisco."

In fact, most of the residents are from San Francisco, raised their families here, and still have family who resides in the Bay Area. Their history and advice extends beyond our city, Kyo, a petite graying woman with a big smile, offers several bits of wisdom. "I'm 90 years old, my brain is getting blank," She tells Wall as he quizzes her for a story. She was a nurse during WWII, went to Japan and worked in a hospital there for 20 years. She was raided in Tokyo flats. I'm informed, and with this offering she gleams with a kind of pride to her provenance. then I'm given direct advice to "live long, and enjoy life.

Buena Vista Park and the Buena Vista Manor House is an oasis in the Haight neighborhood. Somehow it's quieter there and less intruded despite its socket to Haight St. It's less commanding than Golden Gate Park, but no less part of our community, no less enriching to San Francisco, no less part of the city legacy, both the park and the residents.
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