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Hanover’s Outreach House set to close its doors, citing changing needs for senior residences

  • Staff at the Outreach House in Hanover, N.H., have been saving boxes near a basement salon area to help residents move their belongings when the senior residence closes after 22 years on June 30. Visiting hairdresser Troi Ulman, of West Fairlee gives resident Francine Merrens, 75, a wink while doing her hair Friday, April 26, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A supply of canes and walking sticks stands by the front door of Outreach House in Hanover, N.H., Friday, April 26, 2019. The senior housing facility will close after 22 years on June 30. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Resident Cecile Hopkins, 80, reads from Homer's Odyssey in the yard of Outreach House, a senior housing facility with a capacity for nine residents, in Hanover, N.H., Friday, April 26, 2019. Outreach House will close after 22 years on June 30. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Outreach House Administrator Susan Shinn stops to talk with resident Cecile Hopkins, left, after picking up the mail at the senior housing facility in Hanover, N.H., Friday, April 26, 2019. Shinn has worked at Outreach House for 13 years. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2019 10:05:20 PM
Modified: 4/27/2019 10:27:40 PM

HANOVER — It was at Outreach House, an assisted living residence on South Park Street, that Paola Ortega first witnessed death up close.

Ortega lived in the house in 2015 and 2016, after completing a master’s degree at Dartmouth College in 2014. She was on call while one of the house’s residents was on hospice care.

“I was with her the last few nights of her life,” Ortega, who now teaches high school English in Miami, said in a phone interview. She would help the resident go to the bathroom, but mostly Ortega listened.

“She would point to every picture frame in her room and tell me the story of the person in that picture: her son, daughter, niece, husband,” Ortega said.

For Ortega, life at Outreach House followed a routine. She and two other graduate students had to be in by 7 p.m. and make sure residents got their medications. They put dishes away and set the table for breakfast.

Ultimately, her time at Outreach House was less about the tasks than the house’s residents — a maximum of nine seniors — particularly the dying woman Ortega sat with.

“You see her stage of life and your stage of life, and it made me think a lot about the life ahead of me,” said Ortega. “If I make it to old age, hopefully, I can go how she did ... feeling like I lived a good life.”

That sense of living well to the end will soon slip slightly in the Upper Valley. After 22 years in operation, Outreach House will close its doors in June.

“It makes me sad,” Ortega said.

The nonprofit’s board of directors announced the closing in a March 19 letter sent to donors; the announcement was made individually to residents’ families. The board cited growing health care costs as one of the main reasons for the closing.

“We are finding that on a simple day-to-day basis, our residents are needing more extensive nursing care than our staff can readily provide,” the letter said.

Susan Shinn, who has been the administrator for about 15 years, said all six residents have been able to find other accommodations. Two have already moved out, another two will be moving out in May, and the remaining two will move at the beginning of June.

“I’m sad,” Shinn said in a phone interview. “I hate to see the place close. The whole core of the business has changed.”

When the house opened in April 1997, it was geared toward seniors who were relatively active and required little or modest assistance with daily living routines.

But in the past several years, Shinn said, more elderly people are “aging in place.” That means people are staying at home longer and receiving care there, instead of in a health care setting.

And for Shinn, that means the residents living in the house are often older or have moderate to advanced dementia. The cost of caring for patients with such challenging conditions is not a part of the nonprofit organization’s business model.

“Outreach House is not able to support the cost of having a registered nurse on staff and a trained health care professional who is awake all night,” the house’s Board of Directors wrote in the letter.

Residents pay $3,950 per month, which covers room and board, laundry and transportation to medical appointments and community activities. Outreach House did not accept Medicaid recipients, and few assisted living facilities in the area do accept it because reimbursement rates are so low.

Because of its small size, Outreach House built up a web of associations and memories more in keeping with a busy home than with a cold institution.

Sharon Weaver, a Hanover resident, is a board member of Outreach House. Her father, Albert Ramey, lived there for two years, and his experience moved her to get involved with the organization.

“It’s more like a home than it is an institution, and it’s so small,” Weaver said. “So it’s like family.”

Residents would come down in their bathrobes for breakfast and order whatever they wanted: pancakes, scrambled eggs, oatmeal. Ramey would alternate between oatmeal and poached eggs. Weaver would visit her dad almost every day, and they’d sit in rocking chairs on the front porch, chatting.

“I’m grateful that my father got to be there,” Weaver said.

On the third floor of Outreach House is an apartment that offered Dartmouth students and recent graduates inexpensive rent in exchange for being on call to assist residents.

When Ortega lived there, she was on call about 10 nights a month. Residents who needed help pressed a button to alert an on-call student.

“(The house) still allowed for some engagement between Dartmouth and that population,” Ortega said.

Ann James, a 93-year-old Hanover resident, helped start Outreach House. James also helped start Maynard House, a home near the Howe Library that provides patients and their families a place to stay while undergoing medical treatment.

The idea for Outreach House started with a group led by the Rev. Donald MacKenzie at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College.

“He said he was really concerned about people who had worked here all their lives, like teachers, and when they retired, they couldn’t afford to stay in Hanover,” James said.

The house was geared toward elderly people who were finding it difficult to live on their own, but who didn’t need nursing home care.

Once the house opened in 1997, James volunteered to take residents shopping and visit with them on the front porch. That year, the Valley News talked with a few people who were planning on moving either themselves or a relative into Outreach House, including Barbara Haak, who wanted her then-94-year-old mother-in-law to live there. She wanted her mother-in-law to live among friends, people with whom she could play cribbage and go for walks.

James said she counts herself “blessed” because she was able to downsize to move from the house she and her husband owned to a smaller carriage house, which was easier for them to live in.

Now, elderly residents looking for a smaller place to move into might not be so lucky.

“The Upper Valley has a real problem,” James said. “There just aren’t affordable places to live.”

That refrain frequently reaches the ears of Kathleen Vasconcelos, executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, especially in reference to seniors who are on Medicaid, of which there are about 3,500 in Grafton County, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“There’s a great need for places to accept Medicaid,” she said.

Vasconcelos said she hears from assisted living facilities that they can’t afford to take in seniors on Medicaid.

“There needs to be more housing options for older adults in general” including assisted living facilities, residential care facilities and apartments for seniors who need to downsize.

“I do worry about other people,” Weaver, the Outreach House board member, said. “You know — what kind of things will there be for people? If we’re having trouble making this kind of model work, what will it be?”

The wood-frame structure, built in 1924 at the corner of South Park Street and Valley Road, is assessed at $811,700. The board of directors won’t decide what will happen with the home until later in June.

“We’d like it to be a giving place, if possible,” Weaver said. “We’re working through the details.”

Daniela Vidal Allee can be reached at dallee@vnews.com or at 603-727-3211.




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