Dying Parents Inspired Him to Help Others
Gordon Gunnerson hated what his parents had to go through at the end of their lives. First his father fought heart disease, then developed dementia. The illness became so bad that Gordon's father eventually reverted back to childhood.
About four years later, when Gordon was succeeding in real estate in Lake City, Michigan, his mother developed cancer. After watching his father's decline, he knew his mother needed him, so in 1996 he left behind a client list that took decades to build. Gordon took care of her, watching the cancer slowly take her body and eventually her mind. "It really bothers me to see people forget, and they don't seem to know where they are," Gordon says. "It's a real shame."
The experience led Gordon to make a difference in the larger community. Shortly after his mother died, a social worker and a group of nurses showed him the need for an assisted living facility in Lake City. He saw it as a perfect opportunity to help people who have nowhere to turn when it isn't safe or feasible for them to live alone anymore. "I traveled for a year studying facilities, talking with people, asking about costs," Gordon says. "And I hired someone to do a feasibility study on the idea."
He processed all that hard data, which showed his community could support a 90-bed facility, but it didn't show where the money would come from. Gordon's mother had raised him to be pennywise, to not buy anything unless he had the cash. He had never borrowed money. Not for his first car, not for his house, not for anything. Ever. Getting past this point of pride was a very big step. Unfortunately, every local bank rejected him, citing his lack of experience in the assisted-care facility business. But in 2002, a new bank in Traverse City opened. He presented his data and convinced them to give him a $5 million loan.
Gordon oversaw the construction of the high-quality assisted-living facility and named it Belle Oakes in honor of his mother, Isabele. For the next six years, he ran it himself, making sure clients were surrounded by people who cared and understood the needs of older adults living with dementia.
In 2007 he sold Belle Oakes, but he wanted to continue making a difference for people with dementia. So he turned to Mayo Clinic. Gordon first came to Mayo Clinic as a young man seeking help for his blind brother. Gordon remembers teams of experts focusing on his brother, trying to help. Over the years, Gordon turned to Mayo Clinic time and again. Each time, he came away grateful for the kindness and care shown to him and his family. Gordon decided to establish a $1 million charitable gift annuity to advance Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's disease research. A charitable gift annuity pays back in cash a percentage of a philanthropic gift.
"I want Mayo Clinic to have money to do more experiments to solve more problems and help more people, especially people with Alzheimer's," Gordon says. "The only thing I'm hoping for is a solution for Alzheimer's."