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The Story of Cedar Hill
Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community: A Brief History
Passion and Destiny Collide
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 properties in for Mary Louise 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 Victorian-era mansion, the building was in poor condition. The property held great promise; however, 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.
At the time, aging populations were on the rise and the conventional model for nursing homes no longer met an expanding set of needs. The idea of continuing care (a model of care that attends to a wide range of retirement needs within one residence or campus) was in its infancy, showing up in journals and manifesting in a smattering of assisted living facilities.
“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 snow melt, 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.
1994 – Cedar Hill’s Retirement Village Begins Taking Shape
With that project complete, Mary Louise began working with Paul Biebel of Biebel Builders in Windsor and Architect Paul Carroll, from Boston, to design two new buildings—a nursing home and an independent and assisted living area.
“We sat around and talked with them about our dream for the community. We wanted an attractive building that didn’t look out of place in this rural setting and that would offer comfortable common space, a fireplace, sizeable rooms and windows for plenty of light. We also wanted to devote part of the nursing home to people with dementia so they included some secured areas with a lot of skylights and outdoor opportunities for gardening and getting out into the fresh air.”
–Mary Louise Sayles
In order to qualify for the loan program, the women had to raise additional capital, so Mary Louise met with Don Hall, administrator at Valley regional Hospital in Claremont New Hampshire, to discuss the project and the obstacles that prevented them from receiving financing. The hospital had an investment arm that could support a for-profit business investment. Mary Louise presented her case in front of the hospital’s board of directors and, ultimately, convinced them to support the Cedar Hill project. Consequently, the hospital became part owner of Cedar Hill for a 10-year-period, enabling Mary Louise and Judith to move ahead with financing.
Having obtained the additional capital they needed, Mary Louise and Judith signed papers for their HUD insured loan in February of 1994 and were ready to begin construction of Cedar Hill Health Care, which included Teddy’s Place, a wing of the center that was dedicated to memory care. They broke ground early in the year and completed the project within seven months. Residents moved into the new Cedar Hill Health Care Center in September of 1994 and within a year, the center reached 100% occupancy. The skilled nursing and short-term rehabilitation facilities here continue to provide top-notch care for the senior community in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire.
1995 – Level 3 Health Care Provides Institutional-Type Services in a Homelike Setting
Directly after moving into Cedar Hill Health Care, 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, health care oversight, and improving the quality of their lives.
1999 – Their Assisted Living Dream Becomes a Reality
“This was our original plan – to have a multi-level community with various options for health care services. It was central to our original mission. With The Village, we finally had the community we had dreamed about in the beginning. We had our community, and it was successful.” –Mary Louise Sayles
By September of 1999, Mary Louise and Judith obtained their second HUD insured loan, enabling them to begin work on the independent and assisted living area. The plans that were developed by Paul Biebel and Paul Carroll in 1994 were used to construct The Village in a seven month period. The builders removed the barn, swimming pool, and airplane hangar that were purchased with the property and, in their place, built The Village, which comprised 20 independent and assisted living apartments, a central dining area and café, living rooms, fireplaces, and multiple patios.
Within six months, The Village was running at full capacity, providing momentum and financial stability for the women and also representing the actualization of their original dream—to provide a continuum of care that supports seniors through the health and life transitions of the elder years. By fully realizing the continuing care model, Cedar Hill was able to minimize the stress and health issues caused by change. Rather than moving from one facility to another, their residents could age in place, with the support of a stable community and staff. Cedar Hill was also able to promote more joyful living by providing all of the services and supports residents needed on one campus. It was truly a time of celebration for the two women as they experienced the positive effects of their achievements every day.
2005 to 2008 – A Time of Transition for Cedar Hill
By 2005, Judith was ready to retire. She moved to North Carolina and remained close friends with Mary Louise, who continued to run Cedar Hill with the help of hired administrators. Mary Louise was well prepared for Judith’s retirement; however, over the years, Mary Louise had kept her three daughters up-to-date about the continuing care community with the hope that she could convince one of them to take over the business someday.
Patricia Horn, her middle daughter, had begun to show a strong interest in her mother’s vision. A resident of Philadelphia, Patricia wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Since 2000, newspapers had been flailing and had long been offering buyout options to their staff. Patricia visited Cedar Hill often, growing more and more interested in her mother’s work as she wrestled with the decision to leave her career as a journalist.
In 2008, Patricia decided it was time to make a career change. She accepted the buyout option and moved up to Windsor, Vermont. Within the year, she had become a licensed nursing home administrator, ready to help her mother build on the dreams Mary Louise had begun with Judith.
2009 – The Continuing Care Vision Expands
“It is important that people in individual and assisted living continue enjoying their life. I think it is important for staff to get to know residents as people who have led a full and vibrant life. As they age and require some extra help in the tasks of living, they still have the potential to enjoy a stimulating and fulfilling life.” –Mary Louise Sayles
Cedar Hill had always provided memory care services for its community members in Victorian House and at Teddy’s Place. The secure units in the existing buildings were effective but offered limited space and amenities to patients with advanced memory care needs.
Mary Louise and Patricia wanted to expand the space in The Village to add new independent and assisted living apartments, as well as a secure, state-of-the-art memory care unit that would provide ample amenities and expansive walking and socializing areas for their memory care residents.
The memory care center would be designed specifically to meet the needs of people living with Alzheimer’s and related dementias. It was important to Mary Louise and Patricia to create space where memory care residents could truly thrive in an environment that was sensitive to their unique needs, provided ample social stimulation, enabled staff to provide secure round-the-clock supervision, and opened up space for mentally stimulating tasks and activities.
“Physical space is important for creating an environment where people can thrive. Some residents want to be very close while others need large open spaces, where they can pace and move about. We wanted to create the best physical environment that we could.”
2015 – Sweeping Upgrades Support Deeper Levels of Service
In February 2015, Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community completed a $10.4 million expansion project that tripled their independent and assisted living residential capacity and expanded their residential options to include a state-of-the art, secure memory care center.
The Assisted Living apartment wing was dedicated to Mary Louise’s daughter Maria, who lost her life to cancer in 2004, and the Judith Brogren Memory Care Center was dedicated to Judith, who passed away in 2013.
The new memory and Alzheimer’s care center enabled Cedar Hill to care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in a secure yet comforting living area. The building was designed with specific features that provided stimulation and safety for patients with memory disorders including: large indoor walking areas that provided ample space for patients who tend to pace or need constant movement, an open floor plan that provided easy visibility for nurses to watch over patients, and secure outdoor patio and gardens that allowed patients to enjoy the outdoors without the danger of getting lost.
A Vision of Continuous Care that Supports Residents at All Stages of Life
The vision Mary Louise and Judith had brought to life through the Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community in Windsor, VT, offered a “continuum of care” to meet the changing needs of residents over time. This continuum of care includes independent living and assisted living areas in our retirement Village, skilled nursing and short-term rehabilitation care at Cedar Hill Health Care, and memory care at the secure and fully-staffed Judith Brogren Memory Care Center.
“It is important that people in independent and assisted living continue enjoying their life. I think it is important for staff to get to know residents as people who have led a full and vibrant life. As they age and require some extra help in the tasks of living, they still have the potential to enjoy a stimulating and fulfilling life.” –Mary Louise Sayles
“People can come here when fairly independent and get basic services of housekeeping, meals, transportation and maybe they don’t need any personal care. As they stay here and age in place, there comes a time when might need help with medication, bathing, therapy, so we have different steps, different levels of care and services. There is always an RN who oversees each resident’s health and who provides assessments on regular basis and updating and looking at what needs are and making adjustments as needed.”
A Comfortable Home They Can Call Their Own
Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community is a unique environment where pets are welcome and where residents enjoy movies together, take part in spiritual services that are held on campus, choose from a variety of daily activities and exercise programs, and are encouraged to invite friends and family to visit and to go outside and enjoy the Vermont landscape either from the comfort of their patio or along outdoor walkways. The property is well-maintained, with vibrant gardens in summer, foliage in fall, and clear pathways and driveways in winter.
Relationship building was important to the founders, so staff members are encouraged to get to know the residents, to make connections so that they are better able to provide for the residents’ needs and ensure a better quality of life.
A Bright Future Built on a Productive History
Mary Louise is now semi-retired, continuing to enjoy her work with Cedar Hill as well as her retirement pastimes of gardening and caring for her grandchildren. She shares her life with Jeremy W. Sayles, who she married in 2003, at their home on the Cedar Hill property and in Bradenton, Florida.
“I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. Improving the standards of care and the quality of life has always been part of our mission and we certainly achieved improving the living environment for residents.” –Mary Louise Sayles
Patricia lives on the Cedar Hill property as well, with her husband Reverend Mark Preece and their two children. When her mother is ready to retire completely, Patricia will continue to develop the Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community that blossomed from her mother’s vision for a vibrant community that nurtures and supports its residents through every stage of elderly life.
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