The story of Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community begins in 1988 with two nursing professionals at the height of their careers: Mary Louise Sayles and Judith Brogren.
The two women were working at Sullivan County Nursing Home in Unity, New Hampshire when Mary Louise struck up a friendship with the night security guard, who held a daytime position at a local real estate agency. The guard convinced Mary Louise that she was the type of person that should be running her own nursing home and suggested a handful of local properties for her to consider.
Mary Louise was 53 and Judith was 43 — both single and motivated by a deep passion for elderly care and assisted living. On the security guard’s advice, they crossed the Connecticut River to check out a rundown nursing home on a 12 – acre plot of land at the base of Mount Ascutney in Windsor, Vermont. The property comprised an 8 – acre plateau on the west side of Route 5 and another 4 – acre stretch on the east side, along the Connecticut River.
The 31-bed nursing home had been in business as Cedar Manor since the 1960s. Once a Colonial-era mansion, the building was in poor condition. The property held great promise; surrounded by undeveloped and private land, the site included a barn, a mobile home, a swimming pool, and a 100 – foot metal building that once served as an airplane hangar.
1988 – Two Female Entrepreneurs Follow Their Vision of Owning a Retirement Village
The women scraped together every cent they had and visited their local banker to talk about their vision and ask for a small business administration loan. It was 1988 — during an era when more and more women were becoming entrepreneurs — and federal programs were set up to help women follow their dreams, so the process was quick and easy and provided the funding they needed by late May of 1988.
“People didn’t have the choice of assisted living places, so those who were not ready for nursing care would often rent a small one-room place, maybe share a small apartment with a roommate.”
– Mary Louise Sayles
Mary Louise’s eldest daughter, Maria Horn, was a social worker and licensed nursing home administrator. She worked at Goodwins of Exeter in Exeter, New Hampshire, with William Gilmore, one of the early pioneers in developing assisted living options for elderly residents. Maria and Mary Louise spoke often about the merits of this visionary model for elder care and together they shaped the earliest visions for the “neighborhoods” of Cedar Hill.
Mary Louise and Judith purchased the property with their loan and excitedly began the work of developing a continuing care community, or retirement village, beyond the scope found in the Upper Valley area. They renamed the business Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community and hired a contractor to help with a series of renovations to fix up the old home.
The two women took up residence in the mobile home that came with the property and would remain there for the first year as they poured their energies into their new dream. Judith took charge of the nursing department and staff education, and Mary Louise became the licensed administrator for the home, focusing her attention on the building and improving standards of care so that the home was more comfortable and attractive for the residents.
1991 – The Vermont Winter Reveals New Work
After nearly two years, Mary Louise and Judith had become well acquainted with the building’s quirks and flaws. The bigger flaws were more difficult to deal with on a tight budget, but one major complication, which winter had uncovered, would cause more damage to their budget if they waited to fix it.
The first floor of the original nursing home (now referred to as Victorian House) included an old sun porch that was shared by four residents. The space was uninsulated and the roof over the porch collected snow and ice in winter.
Mary Louise and a housekeeper had to climb out of second story windows to shovel away the excess after each snowstorm and Mary Louise was concerned about the snowmelt, which seemed to be leaking down through the roof into the building’s ceiling and walls. If they waited too long to fix the problem, water damage would compromise the structural integrity of the house and, potentially, the health of the residents.
In the spring, the women decided it was time to invest in renovations for the guests of their assisted living facility. They hired a local builder to remove the old roof and replace it with a second-floor addition. The renovations added two bedrooms with ½ baths and a living room that looks out over the Connecticut River, with skylights throughout the addition to draw in natural sunlight. The old sun porch on the first level was transformed into a rehabilitation center.
1995 – Level 3 Health Care Provides Institutional-Type Services in a Homelike Setting
The next step of the development of the Community was the construction of Cedar Hill Health Care Center, a skilled nursing facility with a special memory care wing in 1994. That story is covered in the next installment of our series, The Vision begins to take Shape.
Directly after moving into Cedar Hill Health Care Center in September 1994, the women continued renovations on Victorian House. Their contractors renovated all of the rooms, adding ½ bathrooms for all residents. They updated the electrical and plumbing systems and added a room for a whirlpool tub. They also added a second-floor living room and a first-floor dining room. Administrative space, originally delegated to the third floor, was opened up on the lower level, reducing stair-climbing for administrative staff and freeing the third level for staff education and storage.
By February of 1995, the upgrades had transformed the building into a level 3 residential home, where Cedar Hill could care for frail elderly residents who have chronic illnesses and have additional support services, such as nursing and assistance with activities of daily living. The old mansion blended well with the adjacent connected nursing home, providing those residents with a greater variety of activities, entertainment, hhealthcareoversight, and improving the quality of their lives.