The Garlands of Barrington: For Two Decades, a Trailblazer in Senior Living

Driven by a unique set of values and a dedication to community, this senior community has cemented a unique position for going on two decades.

(The Garlands of Barrington photo)

This is no ordinary senior living community – that much is obvious from the moment one arrives on the campus of The Garlands of Barrington, 1000 Garlands Lane, in Barrington.

Beautifully manicured grounds frame a ring of stately English cottage townhomes. At the center sits a stately brick complex with nooks, chimneys and abundant character. Complimentary valet parking greets visitors at the front entrance, where the main lobby feels akin to a well-apportioned hotel. There’s no sign of “nursing home” in sight.

Now marking its Emerald 20th anniversary, The Garlands boasts a unique experience that’s thoroughly intentional in its design, from the building and grounds to the staff and the hospitality-focused lifestyle that greets the community’s 397 residents – or members, as they’re called here.

But lifestyle is only the most apparent piece. As a Life Plan community, The Garlands maintains a full continuum of care, from an assisted living and memory care unit to nearly 290 independent living units, which range from a one-bedroom apartment of roughly 900 square feet to villas that exceed 6,000 square feet.

Nancy McCaffrey

“People don’t always understand that this isn’t just a health care setting,” says Nancy McCaffrey, director of hospitality. “This is independent living, and our members are utilizing it in whatever fashion they prefer. But, when the time comes, our staff is trained to be very observant so that we can watch to see if anything changes with an individual’s health.”

Nearly a third of Garlands members come from the greater Barrington area, yet they also come from the North Shore, southern suburbs and out of state. What draws many is the hospitality and community that are part of The Garlands lifestyle.

Members can find several dining rooms, a movie theater, an executive chef and pastry chef, housekeeping and maintenance, a wellness center staffed with licensed nurses, a beauty salon/spa and barber shop, golf memberships at a local club, and private drivers who will take members anyplace within 5 miles of campus. Additionally, a member services team can handle most any other special request.

Community is baked into many spaces, including the pool and fitness center, the library and the members-only lounge, restaurant and private dining suite where members gather for private dinners and happy hours. In spaces like The Winslow dining room and the on-site performing arts center, Garlands members may also rub elbows with the general public.

Dawn L. Kempf

“In our initial designs, it was important to have spaces that could be opened to the community,” says Dawn L. Kempf, vice president and chief operating officer. “We’re not a gated community. Our owners always wanted The Garlands to be an integrated part of the greater Barrington community. That vision has worked very well for us.”

Of course, providing a high level of service also requires a well-equipped team. New employees start with a lengthy training that introduces them to the community’s hospitality-first mindset.

“We try to instill in our team members that it’s not just about doing your job and doing it well. We expect that,” says McCaffrey. “But it’s also taking things a step further and thinking about the experience. Let’s say a member is having a family celebration on site. How did that make them feel? It’s not just putting down a plate of food and wishing them well, but it’s making them feel really special every day.”

Training also helps new employees to feel more comfortable working with older adults and rising to the five-star level of service to which The Garlands aspires.

“Some of our staff have never had a chance to see four- or five-star accommodations, so we try to translate that for them,” says McCaffrey. “Some of our members have a very affluent lifestyle. They are wonderful people and they’re sometimes used to different things.”

The Garlands Gold program further encourages the team’s 300 employees to recognize each other for going above and beyond in their care.

“Members here become our family. They really do,” says Kempf. “Whether they’re sharing a story about a family wedding or a grandchild going off to college, we listen and we care. I think what makes The Garlands special is the members and our relationship we have with them.”

The Garlands began 20 years ago with a vision to create a different kind of retirement community, one that mixes hospitality and health care. It was a novel idea at the time, says Kempf, who’s been with The Garlands for 19 years.

Establishing their plan at the site of a former cannery off Northwest Highway, longtime Barrington residents Bill Brown, Richard Pepper and Marvin Herb started with independent living apartments, villas, assisted living units and a skilled nursing center. The Herb family is still closely involved with the operation.

“Something that sets us apart, and where we are so fortunate, is that we are privately owned,” says Kempf. “If there was ever a new circumstance that came up, we could sit, talk about it, get ownership involved and make a decision. There wasn’t a lot of corporate red tape to keep us from getting things done.”

Kempf credits The Garlands’ local ownership for pulling the community through some of the biggest challenges over the past two decades. One of the first big tests came with the introduction of Phase Two in the late 2000s. Demand was strong, and newcomers wanted larger-than-planned living spaces. Management responded by redesigning the complex.

Then, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Suddenly, more incoming members were uncertain of their financial position. So, The Garlands team extended wider terms to those new members who needed it.

“Our hybrid program didn’t work for everybody, but it allowed us more flexibility and options for our new members,” says Kempf.

While the recession tested The Garlands’ financial resolve, COVID challenged the team in an entirely different way. Even when community dining and other gathering spots were forced to close, the team found new ways to express its hospitality philosophy, while keeping its members safe.

“We wanted to show members that, even though we were in such a terrible time with everything that was happening, we could still show them what we’re doing for them,” says Kempf.

When it became hard for some members to grocery shop, The Garlands partnered with its vendors to fulfill orders of toilet paper, paper towels and limited grocery items. Then, The Garlands teamed up with local restaurants to provide a weekly delivery menu just for members.

The Garlands also became the first-ever senior community to gain accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC), an association that helps businesses and public venues to mitigate health and safety protocols.

“We had an idea, we went for it and got approval right away from ownership,” says Kempf. “I think being able to make decisions for the good of the community, quickly, is a true benefit.”

Looking toward the next 20 years, Kempf and McCaffrey expect to double down on member services, which remains at the heart of this unique community. Renovations on the main floor promise a new gathering space while a new home care program aims to help members remain in independent living longer.

“We want to continue with our excellence, but we’re always trying to be one step ahead,” says Kempf. “We’re really excited about the future.”