Willowood director brings first-hand caregiver experience to post

Willie Ferguson, right, as Betty Boop and one of her residents, Peggy. (Photo/courtesy)

By Traci Chapman

New Willowood at Mustang executive director Willie Ferguson knows first-hand what it is like to watch a parent age and need help beyond a single caregiver’s abilities.

Ferguson had reached a point where they needed more help than what she and her siblings could provide, she said. Looking for information, she found more questions than answers as she tried to help her parents.

“I was ill-equipped in knowing what to do,” Ferguson said. “So began the search – after visiting many homes and shedding many tears, I’d convinced myself I couldn’t leave my loved ones in the institution-like settings I’d visited.”

While investigating her options, she found a place calling itself a “senior living residence.” Soon, Ferguson’s parents had a private apartments in a home – not an institution – and they had round-the-clock care, while not feeling they were in a nursing home.

While that ended Ferguson’s search, it was by no means the end of her journey. A recent retiree, Ferguson began volunteering at her parents’ residence. She would serve meals, call Bingo, give hugs – and she said it changed her.

“At the end of the day I realized I was was more fulfilled emotionally from the time she spent with the seniors than I’d been during the 30 years I worked in the corporate environment,” she said.

When the center director took another position, she convinced Ferguson to take the position. She finally agreed, and she said her life changed forever – for the better.

Ferguson said she has learned a lot working with seniors.

“Pain is real, even when you can’t see it,” she said. “Our bodies fail us. Our minds fail us. Behind every blank stare is a story wanting to be told. Behind every retold story is a cherished memory. Hugs are more important than bank accounts. Hugs are priceless. Experience is etched in the wrinkles at the corners of an eye.  Experience can be forgotten… the list is endless.”

Residents come to assisted living, leaving behind the life they’ve always known, Ferguson said.

“It’s hard for the resident’s to give up the life they once had and move into a house full of strangers….so it’s up to us to make them feel special,” she said. “People move into assisted living because they need something–even if it’s just companionship because they’re lonely.”

The change can be difficult for residents and their families alike, although sometimes the move is the best thing for people who have found themselves alone and isolated in their own homes, the director said.

“Family members will often tell us that mom or dad is very reclusive and will not participate in activities – After a few weeks they call because mom is never in her room,” she said. “Once they get around people their age on a daily basis, they blossom again.”

Always remembering her own parents, Ferguson said her philosophy is to make each person’s “their left years, their best years,” something she shares with her staff, as well as a work ethic that means everyone is a team player and no job is below anyone.

“You’ll find her assisting with all aspects of the resident’s activities of daily living, whether it be the task of doing laundry, serving meals, or just taking the time to stop in and visit with a resident who is feeling under the weather,” marketing director Dana Hall said of her new boss.

Now in her 12th year caring for seniors, Ferguson has worked to continue her education and takes being an advocate seriously, she said. She attended the Oklahoma Aging Advocacy Leadership Academy, a 10 month program sponsored by the Aging Services Division of Oklahoma State Department of Health and has a certificate of Gerontology.

Hall said the residents at Willowood say they feel lucky to have her – Ferguson said feels blessed to have them.

“I never planned to take on a second career, it just happened when I needed the care for my parents,” Ferguson said. “Now I can’t see my life without the elderly in it. I now feel I have a sense of purpose.”