Deerfield's Health Care Chapel, which President Gay Clark Jennings's father helped design, includes stained glass that reflects the seasons of life.

Deerfield’s Health Care Chapel, which President Gay Clark Jennings’s father helped design, includes stained glass that reflects the seasons of life.

It’s difficult to talk about Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community in Asheville, North Carolina, without wanting to add your name to the waiting list. With the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop and national recognition as one of the best retirement communities in the country, Deerfield offers a multitude of amenities and a compassionate, complete continuum of care, from independent living to assisted living to skilled nursing.

House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings knows first-hand about the quality of lifestyle and care at Deerfield, where her 93-year-old father, Robert T. Clark resides. Clark, a retired architect, helped design Deerfield’s Health Care Chapel.

“It’s an amazing place,” she said. “They embody Gospel values in the way they treat residents with dignity and respect. And they take seriously their affiliation with the Episcopal Church.”

The Deerfield community has more than 600 residents, 300 staff members, and 670 people waiting to get in. What makes it such a special place? We asked the Rev. Morgan Gardner, a former deputy to General Convention who has served as chaplain and director of pastoral care services at Deerfield since 2000, and Marleen Varner, a resident since 2010 and president of the residents’ association. She also serves as newsletter editor for the National Continuing Care Residents Association (NaCCRA).

Here are some of their thoughts on aging and life at Deerfield.

Morgan GardnerMorgan Gardner

“I think the Church can be proud, and perhaps surprised, by the ministry it does for the aging through its retirement communities,” Gardner said recently. “Deerfield is an impressive place, and it’s a fun place to work. This is the most fun I’ve ever had in ordained ministry.”

Deerfield is one of many Episcopal-affiliated retirement communities in the United States, but it is one of the few that includes a free-standing chapel, St. Giles Chapel, which operates as a parish church, complete with elected vestry and bishop visitations. Gardner said potential residents typically have at least two questions about religion.

“They want to know if they come to Deerfield, do they get an in-house financial break for being Episcopalian. And the other question is, if we’re not Episcopalian, are you going to try to change us.? The answer is no, you don’t get a special rate if you are an Episcopalian, and no, we are not going to try to convert you; we like you the way you are.”

Chapel services at Deerfield are broadly ecumenical, which reflect the diverse community there. He said religious affiliated retirement communities have a growing tendency “to soft petal their religious connection, particularly with the baby boomers who claim to be a spiritual, not religious.” Residents at Deerfield need not worry.

“There is no evangelism in what I do. The chaplain role is one of companion. We try to be helpful by being present, by being with them.”

It’s a profoundly intimate, significant presence.
“The experience of aging is primarily the experience of loss,” Gardner said. “It begins when the children move away. It continues with the loss of hair and teeth and sight and hearing, then mobility and memory. One moves from a larger house to a condo to an apartment to assisted living to nursing care.

“The ego takes a beating in all of this, and dementia is the final blow in the cycle of loss. We lose our connection with loved ones. Loved ones show up, and we no longer recognize them. We don’t remember who we are. Who have I become if I can no longer remember my name? And who is Jesus if I cannot remember his name?

Gardner tells the story of an elderly retired priest whom he had known for more than a decade.

“I was his pastor when he lost his mobility and his ability to control his thoughts. He had Alzheimer’s. I took communion to him and I held up the host, and I said the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. I looked at him, and he had no idea what I was doing. I teared up, and then his facial expression changed, as if to say don’t worry, it’s okay. I’m okay where I am. What I learned from him is if we forget God, God never forgets us. And that God never forgets our name.”

As Gardner has ministered to the residents of Deerfield, they also have ministered to him. He arrived at Deerfield, he said, after going through a divorce and an unhappy parish experience.

“I came to them broken and busted and bent and twisted, and it was an experience of grace,” he said. “I’ve loved it here. I have learned so much from our residents, about how to age and how they experience these losses. I was 50 years old when I came here. For me, gerontology was a study. The study was always about somebody else. Now I’ve lost some of my hearing and graduated to trifocals and orthopedic shoes. It has gone from the academic to the existential.”

Marleen Varner

Marleen VarnerAs with most Deerfield residents, Marleen Varner, 81, lives in independent living quarters and leads an active, full social life that includes attending performances and events in Asheville as well as participating in the multitude of activities within the Deerfield community. There’s a new spa and a top-notch aquatic center, plus lectures, support groups, and educational programs, art shows and exhibits.

When she chose to move into Deerfield, she knew exactly what she wanted in a retirement community. She had lived in a retirement community in Florida, was active in the NaCCRA, and had visited about 35 others. Varner had a long list of criteria; Deerfield met them all.

“I wanted it to be accredited, and I wanted it to have residents to have voting members on the board,” she said. “I wanted connectivity, so I can walk indoors to assisted living. My background is in higher education, so I wanted a university town, and they have a great symphony here. Asheville is a real hip place. The young people love it and so do the retirees. The downtown is so lively that even on a weeknight, it’s difficult to find a parking space.”

But for Varner, Deerfield’s primary enticement was the financial peace of mind it offered.

“The big difference is our contract,” she said. “We have a true Life Care contract, which means our monthly maintenance fee remains the same no matter the level of care. If you go to assisted living or skilled nursing, your fees stay the same. My situation is a little bit unusual. I’m adopted, so I don’t know my history; I don’t know my anticipated longevity. So that contract is very important to me.”

Plus she enjoys the new spa and the two swimming pools and socializing with the other residents, who include doctors, lawyers, priests, financial experts, artists, and college presidents.

“We have lots of good stuff going on now. It is like one great big family. We party a lot and do a lot of good work.”

The feeling of family exists among residents, and between residents and staff members as well. Varner said dining staff members know every one’s name in the complex.

“The relationship here between the residents and the staff is the most exceptional of anyplace I’ve seen,” Varner said. “We can’t tip, so we put money in all year long to give to employees. Last year we gave our full time employees more than $1,000 each. And we provide about $50,000 a year in scholarships to employees” who are seeking college level academic and training programs in fields related to the care of seniors.

That good work is evident both inside and outside of Deerfield. Community volunteerism is strong; residents are actively involved in more than 40 local and regional non-profits, including driving for Meals on Wheels and teaching English as a Second Language classes. In 2012, Deerfield residents gave more than $619,000.00 in contributions and outreach to the local community.

If you want to know more, you can find Deerfield on Facebook. As Varner says, “there aren’t too many retirement communities on Facebook!” Deerfield is also online at