Hairdresser Guillermina Irene Davila Rivera combs out Marilyn Fassett's hair.
Hairdresser Guillermina Irene Davila Rivera (left) combs out Marilyn Fassett's hair at the salon at Ventura Hills. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

It is easy to drive quickly past the manicured lawns and neutral-colored buildings of Ventura Hills without noticing the property. The gated assisted-living facility sits back from Jackson Keller Road just west of Blanco Road in Northwest San Antonio.

But behind the gates is a vibrant community of about 50 residents and an equal number of staff members who aim to make the residents’ time there as active as their age and wellness allow.

Estella Hilton, Ventura Hills’ sales manager, greets every person in the main building’s hallway by name and asks about their plans for the day.

On a typical day, those may include playing dominoes or bingo, taking a group walk, participating in Bible study, and even enjoying a happy hour every Thursday. One popular center of life at Ventura Hills is the hair salon located on the second floor.

Building 1 of Brookdale Castle Hills.
The main building of the Ventura Hills assisted living facility. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Guillermina Irene Davila Rivera has worked as a hairdresser at the facility for five years.

“I love this place because I try to make people happy,” she said. “When I see new, happy faces, it is very exciting. Simply shampooing hair, talking to the residents, and having fun, that’s all you need. This is why I do it. When I come in the door, everyone is outside waiting for me.”

On the other side of the hairspray, five-year resident Marilyn Fassett beams. She has nothing but praise for her hairdresser and others on staff, saying, “They’re wonderful.”

Resident Joan Harris participates in many of the offered activities such as dime bingo, stretching, and Jeopardy trivia games. After growing up on a farm in Iowa, she taught high school and adored working with children. When her family moved to Texas, she followed. She still enjoys travel, making a yearly trip to Las Vegas to gamble. “I go with whoever goes!” she said, a smile lighting up her face. “Generally my son takes me.”

Activity assistant Winifred Carlock (right) walks from building 2 to building 1 with resident Joan Harris.
Activity assistant Winifred Carlock (right) walks with resident Joan Harris from one building to another. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Resident David Jarren describes himself as a “military brat.” He likes to tell visitors that he has faced death many times: His Aunt Penny saved him and his mother from death during his difficult delivery. He escaped a bus shooting when he lived in Morocco as a child. He survived colon cancer after undergoing radiation treatment for nine weeks.

Now, he says he lives “day by day” and appreciates the good things in life, including his relationship with his sister, who lives in Florida.

While many Ventura Hills residents join in group activities, resident Olga Solis prefers to keep to herself. She loves the quiet, choosing to read, crochet, and watch the news when her daughter isn’t paying her a visit. She is currently working on a blanket. “It’s comfortable,” she said of her home of three years.

Resident Olga Solis relaxes in her room.
Resident Olga Solis relaxes in her room. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As of last week, that home has a new owner and manager, and even a new name for residents to get used to. For 11 years, the facility was known as Brookdale Castle Hills. Previously an entity of Brookdale Senior Living Solutions, the facility was acquired by Eagle Senior Living and is now managed by Greenbrier Senior Living. The campus in Castle Hills is just one of 16 around the country that Eagle Senior Living is acquiring.

“As opposed to us coming in as the new owners and dictating what will be done, we need to spend a lot of time with the staff, the residents, the families, and the broader community,” Eagle Senior Living CEO Scott Kellman told the Rivard Report. “[We need to] assess the needs of the community and [figure out] how we can best serve those needs. This will take some planning and time to develop a strategic plan going forward.” 

Currently, only three of the five buildings on the property are in use. Two structures are two-story assisted-living buildings, and a third building houses residents who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Ventura Hills Executive Director Lori Hall said being acquired by a nonprofit owner means the facility can reinvest revenues in the community instead of paying shareholders.

“This way, we are able to keep our communities in the best shape possible for our residents and associates,” she said. “We truly believe in aging in place, which means the older [our residents] get and the more help they need, they don’t get priced out.”

The residents at Ventura Hills seem ready for some changes but hope most aspects of their home stay the same, especially the food services. The head cook has been with the property for 16 years and gives residents a choice of five menu items for lunch and five for dinner.

As dinner is served around 5 p.m., Fassett sits at a table with five other women, residents who have become close friends while living at Ventura Hills.

“We chose each other,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”

Fassett jokes, “She doesn’t look like it, but she is my best friend. She is my second-best friend. She is my third- and fourth-best. At our age … we all really like and respect each other.”

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Bonnie Arbittier

Bonnie Arbittier worked as a photojournalist for the San Antonio Report.