Since the first homes were constructed at the Brookside Community Retirement and Assisted Living campus in west Mobile, former owner O.A. “Pepper” Pesnell Jr. has maintained a personal connection to the business — one he built to help care for his own parents.

What started as an independent retirement community expanded to include an assisted living facility (ALF) as his parents grew older — all built by the longtime contractor himself. Then, as his parents’ cognitive abilities continued to decline, Pesnell added a Speciality Care Assisted Living Facility (SCALF) to Brookside’s offerings so he could provide the care they needed.

“My mom and dad lived on campus independently for a number of years, then moved into [the ALF] for several years and then into the SCALF. They both died from Alzheimer’s,” Pesnell recalled last week. “So they experienced all three levels of care that we provide and, absolutely, they probably caused me to do it all. I loved my mom and daddy. They were great people.”

Add to those personal connections the entrance to the Brookside campus on Cottage Hill Road that bears Pesnell’s name and the chapel he built for his mother there and it’s easy to see why selling Brookside wasn’t a fly-by-night decision for the Mobile native.

According to Pesnell, the landscape of the assisted living business has changed greatly since the late 1990s, as more and more corporations jump at a business opportunity created by increased life expectancy and an aging population of baby boomers — many of whom will ultimately need some degree of caretaking.

Today, Pesnell said he’d estimate “more than 90 percent” of ALFs are corporately owned, which is why Jacksonville, Florida, resident Art Marquez stood out to him when he began inquiring about purchasing Brookside earlier this year.

Left, Pepper Pesnell, recently sold the Brookside Community Retirement and Assisted Living business he built himself to Art Marquez, right. (Jason Johnson)

“Art may not want me to tell this, but when I decided to sell I had three offers on the table and his was the lowest, but he’s the one I wanted to sell to,” Pesnell said. “You need to be financially stable and make money in order to operate, but sometimes the corporate focus is more about the bottom line rather than the care of the residents. [Marquez’s] heart and his family’s heart were in the transaction, and that was more important than I can describe.”

Pesnell said keeping Brookside “family run” was one of his goals, but that non-corporate status isn’t all he shares with Marquez, who himself was deliberately seeking out retirement communities with SCALF offerings to purchase.

Like Pesnell, Marquez is also familiar with seeing a loved one’s cognitive abilities deteriorate with age, having lost his own father to Alzheimer’s.

After 13 years of taking care of him, Marquez said his family placed his father in a memory care facility, calling it one of the “toughest decisions” they ever made.

“You’re basically telling yourself that you can no longer care for your loved one. That’s what it boils down to,” he said. “For 15 years, I bathed my dad. I shaved my dad. I fed my dad. I washed his sheets … every day. My mom did it. My brother did it … Just the three of us.”

However, Marquez said the facilities that treated his father on the West Coast did a wonderful job, not only with his father’s care but also with helping his family through the transition. For Marquez, that experience created an interest in owning a SCALF, which he accomplished when he finalized the purchase of Brookside from Pesnell earlier this month.

Marquez told Lagniappe he looked into ALFs in several states throughout the Southeast, but it was mostly Pesnell’s personal connection with the property and experience that drew him to Brookside — factors that also led him to keep Pesnell on in an advisory capacity.

Aside from Brookside’s history and its privately owned status, Pesnell and Marquez believe the facility is “unique” because of the multiple levels of care offered and the mindset of its staff. Pesnell said some employees have been in the same position since some of the Brookside facilities opened, adding, “If they don’t love working with seniors, we don’t want to employ them.”

“We try to do as much as we can to make them feel like they’re still at home,” Marquez said. “That’s the whole goal here is to maintain their dignity and their freedom and to allow them to still be an individual.”

Maintaining that goal starts with the range of options available for independent living, but for those requiring more specialized care, Brookside also offers an assisted living facility and its speciality care facility for those with conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Marquez said he’ll also be continuing Pesnell’s practice of holding consultations with the families of prospective residents to determine what level of care might best suit their situation — something both men said is helpful when dealing with a loved one’s’ cognitive impairment.

“I can only tell you my personal experience, but I was in denial for a while. It was hard for me to realize that my dad was slipping away,” Marquez said. “Our neurologist, he’s the one who said, ‘you know, maybe it’s time for him to move into a memory care facility.’ We needed him to help us make that decision. It’s one of the toughest choices someone can make.”

For both Marquez and Pesnell, their approach to providing specialty care begins and ends with an idea of family — from their own families to the families of those dealing with a loved one’s illness, to the residents and caregivers at the Brookside facilities.

“We take that very seriously here, and if and when someone’s loved ones need more care than they’re able to provide, we gladly take on that responsibility,” he added. “I know it sounds cliché, but we are kind of like a big family here.”

More information is avaiable at www.livingatbrookside.com and Marquez can be reached at Art@livingatbrookside.com.