Home for the Holidays

By / Posted on December 7th, 2015

By Doug Luginbill, Director of Resource Development and Church Relations, Mennonite Home Communities of Ohio

The holiday season in a nursing home is often filled with carolers, family visits and special treats. Activity rooms fill with elementary school children singing familiar Christmas songs as elders smile with enjoyment. Christmas trees adorn the lobbies, dining rooms and other places where space can be found. It is a festive time.

A plate of cookies are enjoyed by Elders and their families.

A plate of cookies are enjoyed by Elders and their families.

Often, Elders are passive observers of these festivities, but in The Green House homes, this is not the case. At Willow Ridge in Bluffton, OH, Elders not only sit back and enjoy, but are actively involved in decorating, planning special meals, making tree ornaments and even baking for the holidays. At Willow Ridge, the Elders are truly “home for the holidays.”

Willow Ridge is composed of two Green House homes. Each home provides 24-hour nursing care in ten private rooms with private bathrooms located around a central hearth/dining room and kitchen. Like in so many homes during the holidays, the kitchen and dining room table become the center for food, fellowship and reminiscing.

In a December 15, 2014 New York Times article entitled The Green House Effect: Homes for the Elderly to Thrive, the author highlights some of the unique aspects of living in a Green House home. The writer states, “(Elders) participate, when able, in food preparation and eat in a communal setting that is more like a home dining room than a cafeteria. Unlike the regimented meals in nursing homes, Green House residents are free to choose when to eat.”

The holidays can be especially difficult for some people. This is often exacerbated for elders living in traditional

Stockings are hung with care at the mantle in Frieda House.

Stockings are hung with care at the mantle in Frieda House.

long-term care facilities. Loss is keenly felt during seasons when family traditions and social gatherings are no longer possible. The challenges of sharing a room with a roommate also are compounded during the holidays. How does one decorate ½ a room? Where can gifts be exchanged festively? Where can the extended family share a meal together?

The elders, their families and staff at Willow Ridge work together to provide activities and events that help fill some of the voids felt during the holidays. It is not uncommon for the families of elders living at Willow Ridge to plan holiday potluck meals together. Impromptu caroling around the hearth often happens. Families can reserve the den to open gifts together or skype other family members. Each elder room can be decorated to her or his preference.

A year ago, Frieda House (one of the homes at Willow Ridge) celebrated the holidays with an “open house” and invited family and friends to join them in singing carols around the piano, playing table games, enjoying Christmas cookies and a trip around town to view the Christmas lights. There was a festive mood in the house as several families sang Silver Bells and Away in a Manger at the piano as the daughter of Christine, one of the Elders, played the piano. Another Elder, Doris, enjoyed cookies and conversation around the dining room table with her daughter and two grandchildren. As is typical at most family gatherings, young children ran through the house, their eyes all aglow, knowing that Santa was on his way. After returning from seeing the Christmas lights in Bluffton, another Elder, Durand, headed straight to the kitchen for some fudge and buckeyes.

The tree is adorned with doves bearing names of Elders who have passed away while living at Frieda House.

The tree is adorned with doves bearing names of Elders who have passed away while living at Frieda House.

In addition to the Open House at Willow Ridge, Elders living there have enjoyed a number of activities and events during the Christmas season including:
• A trip to see the Christmas tree display at the Allen County Museum
• A carol sing-along and craft activity with local Boy Scouts, baking gingerbread cookies and snowmen
• Christmas trivia supper
• Elder/Staff Christmas Meal
• Making snow globes with a craft club
• Family Christmas Day meal
• Barberettes singing at Betty House

In deciding whether or not to pursue the Green House philosophy, Laura Voth, CEO of Mennonite Home Communities of Ohio stated, “When we toured the first Green House homes in Tupelo, MS in 2004, we were struck by how much the houses felt like real homes. It fit so well with our mission of providing person-centered care and purposeful living in a Christian environment. We were convinced this is what the Elders of our communities deserved.”

Since opening in 2012, Willow Ridge has been well received by the community. “We have been full since April, 2013 when we received our licenses from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS),” states Rhonda Wolpert, Administrator of Willow Ridge. “When the Ohio Department of Health did their annual survey last year, they were impressed by the real-home atmosphere as well as the quality of care. In fact, they could hardly believe they were in a nursing home,” Wolpert reported.

Much of the reason for the positive survey can be attributed to the excellent care-givers and the staffing model that is used. Care givers (called Shahbaz in the Green House model) are universal workers meaning that they are involved in all aspects of managing the household. Kind of like the moms and dads of the house, they do laundry, prepare

Frieda House, Willow Ridge

Frieda House, Willow Ridge

meals, and do light housekeeping in addition to providing direct Elder care. This provides increased interaction with the Elders, allowing the Shahbaz to get to know the Elders they serve more fully. There is also consistency in staffing which means the same Shahbazim (plural for Shahbaz) care for the same Elders nearly every day. Each Shahbaz is responsible for just five Elders whereas in many traditional nursing homes an aid typically cares for 7-15 elders.

The unique philosophy and environment of the Green House homes makes it possible for Elders like Christine, Doris, Durand and others to say with sincerity, “It’s good to be home for the holidays.”