Green Houses turn a new leaf in nursing home care

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05:38 PM CST on Tuesday, February 3, 2009
By BOB MOOS / The Dallas Morning News

LONGVIEW – Justine Mercer refused to leave her room when she moved into Holly House. It wasn’t her nature to keep to herself, but she had disliked her previous nursing home and just assumed her new surroundings would be no better.

One year later, the 79-year-old stroke victim is a changed woman. She doesn’t miss a meal with her fellow residents and, on her better days, regales them with stories about growing up as the daughter of Hollywood movie star Smith Ballew.

 "I call it a miracle," said Mercer’s daughter, Michele Guess.Residents and family members report other "miracles" at Holly House and its sister nursing home, Hawthorne House, which Dallas-based Buckner Retirement Services Inc. opened amid considerable public attention one year ago.

Holly House and Hawthorne House were Texas’ first Green Houses – small homelike facilities where 10 residents, or elders, receive the full range of personal care and clinical services found in a conventional nursing home.

The two Green Houses in Longview are at the vanguard of a national movement to reinvent the traditional nursing home so that it looks and feels less like a hospital and more like a home where the frail and elderly can live and thrive.

Fifty homes have opened in 12 states, and 130 are under development. Forty-two senior-care organizations are building the houses with technical assistance from NCB Capital Impact, a nonprofit group.

"Our Green Houses are the best thing we’ve ever done," said Pearl Merritt, president of Buckner Retirement Services, a nonprofit agency that traces its roots to the mid-19th century. "They have exceeded our expectations in every respect."

Merritt says Buckner plans to build similar homes elsewhere in Texas and is studying the feasibility of operating several Green Houses as part of a larger retirement development in North Dallas.

Most of the elders at Buckner’s two ranch-style homes in Longview had lived elsewhere on the agency’s Westminster Place retirement campus there, and the rest had moved from their homes or other nursing facilities in the area.

Since settling in at the Holly House and Hawthorne House, the elders have slept in their own bedrooms, eaten home-cooked meals and enjoyed each other’s company, much as the members of any family would.

At the same time, the Green Houses are licensed skilled-nursing care facilities. Residents remain under the watchful eye of a care team that includes a physician, registered nurse, licensed vocational nurse and nurses’ aides.

Many families say they’ve seen improvement in their parents’ physical health and mental alertness over the last year.

Margie Gregory says her 93-year-old mother, Frances Haskins, walks an hour each day – the first time she has exercised in years. She’s also better at remembering names, and her upbeat personality has returned.

"I noticed a difference in my mother after the doctor here changed the pain medication for her back," Gregory said. "She suddenly showed more interest in exercising and in eating, and she soon seemed more alert."

The elders’ improved health isn’t so much a miracle as the result of a close-knit team of caregivers who know their seniors better than they could in a conventional nursing home, said Green House administrator Debby Burgett.

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