“Green” nursing homes are a big success with residents

The Dallas News had an article about the new “Green” nursing homes that have been built.   The article explains how these new homes have changed the resident’s attitudes about being placed in a nursing home.  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.

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.  I wonder why all nursing homes are not required to give this level of care.

Some nursing professionals have questioned whether the Green House movement, with its emphasis on a home atmosphere, compromises the quality of the residents’ health care.  Barbara Bowers, a nursing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, visited Buckner’s homes in Longview and concluded that, if anything, the nursing care is better than in a conventional nursing facility.

“Things don’t get overlooked at a Green House, as they might be in a nursing home, where caregivers don’t work so closely with each other. If an elder stumbles at a Green House, every caregiver knows it and starts watching that person,” she said.   Shouldn’t this be the standard and not the exception?

Bowers’ research has been underwritten by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is encouraging the development of Green Houses and studying their viability.  Of all the challenges facing Green Houses, the toughest is to become financially viable, experts say. For the homes to become a practical alternative, they can’t cost too much to build and operate and can’t charge more than many older adults can afford. Otherwise, they’ll occupy just a small niche of the nursing home industry.  Buckner spent $3 million to construct its two Green Houses, about what it would have spent on a conventional nursing home with private rooms.   During the first year, the Longview houses charged $165 per day, comparable with what most nursing homes with private rooms cost.