Lakewood Ranch is a great place to live, work and play, but it’s also a great place to get well. Caregivers say the community has served as a sanctuary during their loved ones’ darkest days.
For years Dave and Bobbi Norris checked all the usual boxes as baby boomers living in Lakewood Ranch. Sixty-something. Semi-retired. Transplants from bigger cities. Well-traveled. Long business resumes. Golfers. Bicyclists. Philanthropists. Regulars at Capital Grille. Kids and grandkids scattered across the country. Successful, but not pretentious. Upbeat, but not cloying.
Serial entrepreneurs, they lived in a lot of different states (California, Arizona, New York and Texas) before settling in Florida.
In 2004, they bought a home in the Lakewood Ranch Country Club, and for a short stretch left to run a remediation and recycling business in Texas. In 2011, they returned to East County — one of the few places they didn’t feel restless — and moved into a 4,400-square-foot house on the second-best lot in The Lake Club.
Former marathon runners, the Norrises embodied the town’s live-work-play ethic. Dave served as the CEO of his own corporate consulting firm, and Bobbi worked as an independent operations and revenue consultant in the health care industry. From one side of their million-dollar nest, they could watch the sunrise and from the other side, the sunset. Even the couple’s children were surprised to see them so content in one place.
“It was utopia,” Bobbi says. “Then we hit a bump in the road.”
In 2015, Dave, then 64, started having a hard time swallowing food. Rarely sick, he assumed it was reflux and made an appointment with an ear, nose, throat doctor. An endoscopy revealed a tumor at the base of his esophagus. When doctors diagnosed him with Stage 4 stomach cancer, he had already lost 48 pounds from his athletic frame.
“They told me, ‘You’ve got X-amount of months,’” Dave says. “But Bobbi didn’t focus on that. She said, ‘You’ve got to fight this,’ and so we did.”
Married for 18 years, the couple fell in love 25 years ago, after Bobbi asked Dave to help her train for a marathon in the Adirondacks. After processing his diagnosis, she understood it was her turn to get him through a race.
They ended up at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, not far from their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Despite the convenience, they decided to stay in Florida and fly back and forth to Texas every two weeks for treatment, a schedule they stuck to for six months.
Dave was adamant. He would ride out the effects of the chemotherapy in Lakewood Ranch.
“The community was our sanctuary,” Bobbi says. “We’d go straight from treatment to the airport. It was always the first thing Dave would say when chemo was over — ‘Let’s go home now.’”
Doctors in Houston decided to take an aggressive approach to treating Dave’s cancer given that he was in otherwise impeccable shape. In addition to infusions at MD Anderson, he was given seven chemo pills a day, a high dose of steroids and subjected to an eight-week knock-out round of chemo and radiation at Florida Cancer Specialists in Lakewood Ranch. For more than a year, Bobbi assumed the role of taxi driver, dry cleaner, grocery shopper, chef, bill-payer and cheerleader.
“I had to be his security, too,” she says. “People would reach out, and I’d have to say, ‘No, not today.’”
Behind the Tuscan entrance to their gated development, the Norrises fought the kind of onerous battle you don’t see in real estate pamphlets: Bobbi anticipating Dave’s dizzy spells as he continued to work from home teleconferencing with clients, Dave shivering under blankets pulled straight from the dryer, Bobbi stirring a pot of Bolognese sauce, desperate to fill him with something warm and familiar, Dave holding a drink with an oven mitt because the glass was too cold in his hands.
“There were days he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Bobbi says, “so I had to dig a bigger hole so more light could get in.”
On good days, the couple would go for long bike rides down Lakewood Ranch Boulevard or play a round of golf at Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club. On bad days, Dave would sit queasy on the couch watching a Yankees game and Bobbi would write her thoughts in a journal. When their two weeks were up, they’d fly back to Houston for a few days and then return home to repeat the process, neither one ever questioning their decision to stay in Lakewood Ranch.
“There is a depth of character in this community and a wealth of services,” Bobbi says. “Your neighbors are your friends. The staff at the restaurant down the street knows your name. Really, you couldn’t ask for a more warm or comfortable location to deal with something ugly and uncomfortable.”
Bobbi Norris isn’t the only one lighting the end of a tunnel in Lakewood Ranch. In addition to young families and active retirees, East County is a little-known sanctum for caregivers.
The community’s newer housing, carefully planned infrastructure, abundance of green space and access to feel-good amenities and nonprofits make it an ideal place to care for ailing family members or children with special needs.
From equine therapy and respite care to in-home elder care services, cancer foundations, caregiver support groups and autism schools, families lifting heavy loads in Lakewood Ranch are getting help — and the number of these accommodations is rising with the population.
Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, for example, will double its Lakewood Ranch oncology practice this summer when it opens its $16 million facility at State Road 70 and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. More chemotherapy chairs, more examination rooms and more clinical trials means fewer area patients will have to drive an hour north to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
“People find refuge here,” says registered nurse Beth Wittmer, senior manager of care management at Florida Cancer Specialists. “It is an attractive place if you’re dealing with a chronic condition. The setting itself is relaxing, and there are a lot of resources. It feels safe.”
Wittmer says she meets a lot of seniors, many of whom live on Longboat Key who have expressed interest in moving to Lakewood Ranch for this reason. Over the past two years, the community has opened The Sheridan at Lakewood Ranch, an upscale assisted living and memory care facility with 121 apartments, and announced plans to build a 50,000-square-foot medical building on its CORE Campus (Collaboration Opportunities for Research and Exploration) — a 265-acre biotech hub located between Rangeland Parkway and State Road 70. A Tidewell Hospice House is built and awaiting certification to open.
Not surprisingly, builders are also heeding the call.
This winter, Neal Signature Homes will roll out nine new floor plans in Country Club East, four of which will come predesigned with flex options for in-law suites. Neal Purchasing Manager Tony Compano says the company has always offered customizations, but this is the first time it’s addressing the need upfront.
“We get enough requests that we decided to redo our plans,” Compano says. “People aren’t just looking for in-law suites, but modifications to the inside of their homes; lowered countertops, zero-entry showers, grab bars, that sort of thing. A lot of people are buying houses here thinking it’s the last place they’re going to live. They see themselves in the future, and they understand they might be in a wheelchair. They realize if they want to stay in their home as they get older, they might have to move in a caregiver.”
POWER OF POSITIVITY
Caregivers face a sobering reality, but it’s not always depressing, and not all caregivers are taking care of sick or elderly loved ones.
Greenbrook resident Mary Smith serves as executive director of Lakewood Ranch-based Family Network on Disabilities of Manasota, a nonprofit that assists families with children with disabilities and special needs. The organization’s cardinal service is providing in-home respite care so caregivers can get a break.
This temporary relief was monumental for Smith and her husband, Brian, when they moved in 1995 from Lakeland to Bradenton. Away from family and caring for two small children with disabilities (Michelle has Down syndrome and Paul has autism), Smith felt alone and overwhelmed. Then pregnant with her third child, she turned to FND Manasota for help.
She connected with parents in the same boat and soon began volunteering for the organization and serving on its board. In 2000, she helped launch FND’s
respite program and three years later was appointed to executive director.
“If we didn’t have respite when our kids were little, I don’t know how we would have survived those years,” says Smith, 57. “Respite keeps you out of the valley. If you’re in the valley, it pulls you out. It gives you a sense of normalcy.”
Even though the Smiths’ children are grown now — Michelle is 27 and Paul is 25 — they still live at home and will continue to do so until they outlive their parents. The couple’s youngest daughter, Julie, 23, who just graduated with a degree in health science from Florida Gulf Coast University, is on board to be their caregiver when that day comes.
In the meantime, life is pretty good in Lakewood Ranch, says Smith. Michelle and Paul are enrolled in a day program that provides vocational training at The Haven in Sarasota. They play Miracle League baseball and attend the special needs prom at Woodland Community Church. They ride their bikes to Greenbrook Adventure Park or go out to dinner at Metro Diner, where they’ve become regulars over the past few months. They love going to the beach and the movies.
“It’s doom and gloom if you make it doom and gloom.” Smith says. “You can spend your time asking why me … why two kids like this … but my husband and I never had that kind of attitude. We believe our kids were given to us for a reason or a purpose. We have a positive outlook, and that’s the key to everything.”
Dave and Bobbi Norris agree.
In 2016, after receiving two experimental rounds of heated chemotherapy at MD Anderson, Dave was declared cancer-free. After getting the news, he and Bobbi found a new cause for their Make a Difference Foundation — Blanket Warmers for Cancer Patients, which donates commercial-grade blanket warmers to Florida Cancer Specialists locations across the state.
Their first machine went into the Lakewood Ranch center, right beside the chair Dave used to sit in to get chemo.
“Making a difference with time I wasn’t supposed to have is extremely important to me,” says Dave, who credits the community and his wife with helping him heal. “Bobbi said to me early on, ‘Lean in as hard as you can, and I’ll lean back harder. That way we never fall.’”
Editor’s note: As the story went to press, we learned that Dave Norris died Nov. 7 of a sudden illness, with family by his side.