Alonzo Mather’s legacy to help the elderly lead better lives is alive and well in Evanston. A descendant of Increase and Cotton Mather, Alonzo Mather came to Chicago from New York in 1875 and made a fortune developing railway freight cars that could transport cattle safely and humanely.
His charitable career began when he learned, to his dismay, that local widows of World War II soldiers were left in financial straits. As a result, in 1941, Mr. Mather’s bequest allocated funds to create The Mather Home for Aged Ladies on the northeast corner of Davis Street and Hinman Avenue for “ladies of refinement.” The trust that operates Mather Lifeways was created at Alonzo Mather’s death in 1941; the Mather opened in 1952; and in 1987 the trustees received approval to include men in their residences.
Mather Gardens and its sister building across Davis Street, Mather Place at The Georgian, were demolished recently and replaced by the two new buildings comprising Mather Lifeways’ continuing care retirement community in Evanston.
While Mather Lifeways appears to cater only to higher-income residents, the organization’s CEO Mary Leary said the mission of helping adults age well is not confined to the wealthy.
“The pricing was designed to meet the needs of Evanston and North Shore residents,” she said. Evanston residents who wish to live at Mather Lifeways but cannot afford it may find a benefactor in Mr. Mather.
“Alonzo’s Wish” is a $30 million fund for financial aid to Evanston residents during the first 10 years of operation. “I encourage Evanston residents who have a desire to live at the Mather [but cannot afford it] to inquire about Alonzo’s Wish,” Ms. Leary said.
Aging well, said Ms. Leary, is a matter of body, mind and spirit. Residents can exercise in the 10,000-square-foot fitness center/day spa, the 20-meter lap pool, the warm-water therapy pool, or the group exercise studio.
The “brain gym” offers classes in yoga, tai chi and meditation. Residents of Mather Lifeways and of the Evanston community can relax in the two-acre yards and gardens to the east of the buildings or enjoy the occasional outdoor concert on the spacious lawn. Two thirds of the 3.25 acre site is devoted to green space.
A continuing care retirement community, Mather Lifeways offers an array of residential and health-care options, ranging from independent living through assisted living to skilled care, all on-site.
Ms. Leary said the detailed attention to residents’ well-being is only one of the ways Mather Lifeways implements the vision of enhancing senior living. As an employer – named one of the Chicago area’s Top Workplaces for the second straight year by the Chicago Tribune – Mather Lifeways encourages its employees to stay fit. Employees have their own fitness center and are even given “aging well dollars” they can use to join a gym.
“We support our employees in eliminating ‘impossibles’ – things they think they cannot do or goals, such as losing weight, they think they cannot meet,” said Ms. Leary.
“We have an employee fitness center; employees have computer access; and we have ‘aging well dollars,’ which employees can use to join a gym, for example,” she added.
“I believe Mather Lifeways contributes greatly to the community of Evanston,” said Ms. Leary, pointing to ongoing contributions by the organization: an annual payment of $125,000 to the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Fund, and full payment of property taxes on the two sites.
Northwestern University and Mather Lifeways collaborate with intergenerational sessions between students and residents. The Northwestern Chamber Musicians hold concerts at the Mather and students from Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music give concerts there.
The organization also supports North Shore Village, a not-for-profit organization that helps adults remain in their homes in their declining years.
In addition to the Evanston residential facilities, Ms. Leary said, Mather Lifeways may be best known for its Institute on Aging and its More Than a Café facilities. Founded in 2000, the Institute on Aging is a “practical think tank” that teaches best practices for senior care and senior living. The Institute offers training both here and abroad on such topics as empowering family caregivers, comprehensive wellness programs and assessment tools, aging-in-the workplace issues and emergency preparedness.
“We have provided training to Fortune 500 companies and in 11 countries throughout the world,” said Ms. Leary. She added with a chuckle, “We may be better known in Japan than in the U.S.”
More Than a Café facilities offer non-residential day programs such as computer and physical fitness classes. With its residential facilities in Evanston, Wilmette and Tucson, Ariz., and other programs, Mather Lifeways served 33,000 older adults in 2011, Ms. Leary said.
Ms. Leary said she believes Mather Lifeways will continue to be a place where seniors of all ages and capacities can age well. Nearly 80 percent of the units in the new building have been sold, and 199 residents have moved in. Next year, Mather Lifeways plans to seek gold LEED certification on the buildings.
And Ms. Leary appears to be delighted with her job and her community. “I’m passionate about our mission, and I love helping our residents,” she said. Recently she helped one of the residents, in her 90s, publish a book. “She said it was the happiest day of her life.”