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With Tree of Life, student branches out to redefine nursing homes

Inspired by his experience and USC education, Montgomery Ostrander opens a therapeutic facility

Montgomery Ostrander has an MBA. He spent eight years at Microsoft in software development. And he now owns and operates a therapeutic elder care home.

Ostrander is not your typical social work student.

Inspired by personal experience — he saw various unmet needs when his grandparents lived in a traditional care home — and by what he learned in the master’s program at the USC School of Social Work, Ostrander devoted himself to Tree of Life, his therapeutic care home, and became a part-time student, less than a year after beginning the MSW@USC program online.

The elderly are subjected to horrible conditions in most of the homes they can afford.

Montgomery Ostrander

“The elderly are subjected to horrible conditions in most of the homes they can afford,” said Ostrander, who became a certified therapeutic residential care facility administrator last fall. “We reject elderly people when they can’t take care of themselves — it’s a much larger social justice issue. Therapeutic residential care facilities meet a need that is unmet in the community at large.”

A different kind of care

Ostrander’s facility differs from traditional elder care homes in that it incorporates support not only for physical health but also for mental health. In therapeutic care homes, staff members are trained to address and meet all the needs of their residents, ranging from behavioral and mental health counseling to medical treatment. He completed his field placement experiences in a residential substance abuse recovery facility and as a psychotherapy intern for foster youth to create the framework for Tree of Life.

“We want to be holistic, to have a bio-psycho-social-spiritual element,” said Ostrander, who runs Tree of Life with his wife. “I don’t want to just drug people until they die. I want to make it a conscious elderhood. If there’s a way to make death mindful, to reduce the trauma of loss and cut off the unhealthy aspects of it, I’d like that.”

Montgomery Ostrander sits with a resident at his therapeutic care home. (Photo/courtesy of Montgomery Ostrander)

Montgomery Ostrander sits with a resident at his therapeutic care home. (Photo/courtesy of Montgomery Ostrander)

At Tree of Life, which is in the San Diego area, Ostrander, his wife and three caregivers offer a wide range of services and activities: organic diets (residents even grow some of their own food); mindfulness-based stress reduction; memory activities and social discussion groups; formal psychotherapy; and art, pet, play and music therapies.

Using his software development background, Ostrander has even created a smartphone application just for the families of his residents. The app allows relatives to monitor their family members’ activities, alerting them when they could meet a need, such as providing supplies or emotional support.

“The idea behind the app is that someone could be in line at Starbucks, wonder what their mom is doing and find out,” Ostrander said. “They can see stress levels, calendars and menus, and text the administrator working with their family member.”

A man on a mission

Dana Caballero, an adjunct assistant professor with the School of Social Work, heard about Ostrander’s plans to open a care home while he was her student last year. Although taking on such an endeavor is bold, Caballero said she was not surprised by his dedication because he demonstrated vision and creativity in her class.

Monte has an intuitive excitement and passion about social work that is contagious.

Dana Caballero

“Monte has an intuitive excitement and passion about social work that is contagious,” Caballero said. “He is a student who wants to learn, study and read because he is naturally interested in the information. His desire to learn more makes him an inspirational student for his colleagues.”

Although balancing school and running his care home is challenging, Ostrander said that his coursework directly relates to his new career.

“I’m taking a class on leadership management in social work, and I wrote a paper on my employees. I had to go around and get feedback [from them] on my management style,” Ostrander said. “When you’re in school and cutting frogs or doing calculus, you think that you’re never going to use [that information]. But I’m using my education minutes later when someone walks in [to Tree of Life].”

Ostrander’s care home currently can house six residents, and he plans to open other facilities in the future. He wants to be able to host social work interns as a field placement site, and he has high hopes for selling his app far and wide.

Ostrander said the consistent support he finds at the School of Social Work is what makes his dream possible.

“This journey with USC and the MSW is a journey of self discovery. I don’t know if I would be who I am today if it were not for USC,” he said. “I am overwhelmed by the support I have received from the Trojan Family. Without it, none of this would have happened.”

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With Tree of Life, student branches out to redefine nursing homes

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