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January 20, 2021

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Chocolate malts and frogs’ legs?

Willow Ridge: Not your typical nursing home

Barb Lawrence remembers a text she received while getting ready to go to work at Willow Ridge.

“A staff member sent me a picture of a chocolate malt (with whipped cream and a cherry) that she had just made for one of our elders.  It was 6 a.m.!”

Barb’s story illustrates what’s unique about Willow Ridge.  The first Green House home in Ohio, it refutes just about all the perceptions people have about long-term care. 

For example, how many nursing homes would serve a resident a chocolate malt for breakfast, just because she wanted one?  For that matter, how many nursing homes have “shahbazim,” instead of STNAs and refer to their residents as “elders,” individuals who deserve respect and honor? 

According to William H. Thomas, MD, developer of the Green House concept, a Green House home is created from the ground up to foster the same feeling and experience you get from living in a real home.  Thomas, a Harvard trained physician, is passionate about transforming traditional long-term care facilities into places where “elders rule.”

Opening in 2012, Willow Ridge and the Green House concept were not adopted in haste.  Dedicated Mennonite Home Communities of Ohio (MHCO) department directors studied and reviewed documents for eight years.

Once it was decided to implement the concept, a committee, affectionately known as the “Pit Crew,” performed all the steps of implementing the model, also touring the country’s first Green House homes in Tupelo, Mississippi. 

Comprised of two houses with just 10 elders in each house, Willow Ridge provides private bedrooms and baths for each elder, with a common kitchen and family room.  Spouses can drop by for lunch or dinner and family relationships are fostered. 

Lawrence is a “guide,” and supervises the shabahzim who care for the elders.  The Persian word is taken from the name of a falcon in a story that symbolizes a new way of working with and being with elders. 

Shabahzim are state tested nursing assistants (STNAs) with an additional 128 hours of training.  They provide ALL care for elders in the houses, including cooking and laundry as well as personal care. 

“We vary a lot from the traditional nursing home routine,” added Lawrence.  “We even treat the elders’ laundry as their personal property and wash in residential, rather than in big commercial washers.  Since we do laundry by room, there’s no need to write names (which are usually visible) on clothing.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is.”

Lawrence has almost a familial relationship with MHCO.  Before Willow Ridge, she worked at Mennonite Memorial Home (MMH) as did her parents.  Her son, who is pursuing his degree in nursing, also worked there.

“Of course, at Willow Ridge, the elder is at the center of everything, but it seems like elders’ decisions are respected at all MHCO homes,” Lawrence said. 

Laura Voth, CEO, agrees, emphasizing that elders’ requests and accommodating families are a top priority in the organization.  “You wouldn’t believe to the extent we’ve gone in making things easier for family members to visit and carry on their family traditions in our setting.  It’s an important part of the care we deliver.”

Willow Ridge as a Career Goal

You might say that Heather Clum was born to work at Willow Ridge.  Now, the homes’ director of nursing, she also served on the Pit Crew, studying and learning about Green House homes.

“I began working at Mennonite Memorial Home as a companion when I was a senior in high school, Clum remembered.  “My grandparents lived far away, so I felt like I had a lot of grandparents at MMH.” 

Clum became an STNA, then attended Rhodes State College to become a registered nurse.  Although the schedule was difficult, she praises MHCO for its understanding and flexibility while she attended classes.  After graduation, she became assistant director of nursing at Mennonite Memorial Home and applied for the director of nursing position at Willow Ridge when it opened.

“I felt like I had spent years planning for a place like Willow Ridge and I wanted to be a part of it,” she added.

Clum has her own stories to tell about the differences between Willow Ridge and “traditional” nursing homes.  She laughs when she tells about an elder who was obsessed with having frogs’ legs for dinner.  The staff found out where they could get a case of this delicacy; bought it, and prepared a frogs’-legs meal for all of the elders.  Another elder who had transferred in, missed his favorite meal of biscuits and gravy. The shahbaz found the ingredients and had biscuits and gravy ready for him that evening.

“It’s different than hospital nursing,” Clum added.  “Working at a place like Willow Ridge, you really get to know the elders because you care for them for what’s usually a long time,” she said.  “I have learned so much from our elders.”

The five “pearls” of Green House living:
• Preferences – Elders rule!
• Environment – Private bedrooms and full bath
• Accessibility – Financial barriers are minimized
• Relationships – Caregivers are empowered
• Life – Life with meaning