BRATTLEBORO — Cynthia Pearson settles onto a blue settee in one of the reception rooms of the Bradley House, one of the two facilities operated by Garden Path Elder Living, the nonprofit residential care organization whose leadership she assumed a few short weeks ago.
Why take the job?
She enjoys working with elders.
“They are amazing, they have so much to offer, and you actually learn a lot from them,” she said.
In addition to the Bradley House, at 65 Harris Ave., Garden Path operates Holton Home, at 158 Western Ave. Each building has 35 rooms, and the average age of residents is 90, said Pearson.
Outgoing Interim Executive Director Bonnie McKellar sits across from Pearson next to the reception room's fireplace. The two had worked together at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
“If I were younger, I would have stayed, but I was already retired when I came on as the interim [executive director],” McKellar joked.
“I took this job as a temporary position because the organization is going through some transition,” she explained, crediting Pearson's clinical and management background as “exactly what this organization needs at this moment in time because of the changing environment with the elders.”
McKellar added that “she has so much to offer and she will bring it to the next level,” noting that Pearson is a registered nurse with a certification in gerontology, which she feels is appropriate for serving both the organization's residents and the organization as a whole.
Before joining Garden Path, Pearson worked with Dr. Robert Tortolani for 20 years. The practice served many elders in Brattleboro, she said.
While this is her first executive director position, Pearson has also worked as the clinical coordinator and served on the management team for six years at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. She holds an MBA in health care administration.
She said she feels excited to work with the organization. In her opinion, “it has a good feel and happy residents.”
She would know: her own father moved to Holton Home approximately three years ago.
At first, the transition was hard for her father, who has dementia, said Pearson. But since he moved to Holton Home, she said that she has witnessed significant improvement in his health.
The facility has ensured that he is social, eats three meals a day, takes his medications regularly, and has someone checking up on him, Pearson said.
These routines have a large impact on his quality of life.
“If he hadn't been in a facility like this, I don't think he would have done very well,” she said.
He walked a lot when he was on his own, she added. Pearson said she stopped by his house twice a day to make sure he was home at night.
“[Holton Home] took away a lot of the worry,” she said.
A rich heritage
Bradley House and Holton Home, and facilities like them, allow people to remain in their respective communities, said Pearson and McKellar.
Or they also allow people to move near family members who live in the area. A few residents at the two homes are originally from California, McKellar said.
According to the Garden Path's website, Holton Home was incorporated by an act of the Legislature on Nov. 19, 1892 as the Brattleboro Home for the Aged and Disabled.
Richards Bradley built Bradley House in 1858 to impress the father of his wife, Sarah Williams Merry Bradley. It remained in the family until 1940. Since then, the Bradley House has also served as apartments and a retirement home for clergy. An addition was added to the historic building in the 1970s.
Pearson said more people want to live for as long as possible in their own homes. As a consequence, they have more medical needs by the time they seek facilities like theirs.
McKellar added that while the state encourages people to age at home through programs such as Choices for Care, homes like Garden Path's provide social activities and other wellness programs that help support people's overall health.
Residents don't need to worry about cooking food, vacuuming, or paying bills, McKellar said.
“And they form a lot of friendships here,” Pearson said. “It just has such a nice feel to it as soon as you walk through the door.”
Pearson and McKellar noted that fewer people are living at Bradley House these days because of a recent multi-million-dollar renovation to the three-floor mansion, which features big windows and several marble fireplaces.
People can rent either a single room with private bath or a suite with a bedroom, living room, and bath. The organization takes Medicaid and participates in Vermont Choices for Care.
Pearson said one of the biggest challenges facing elder care is staffing.
Garden Path has experienced low staff turnover, which McKellar characterized as “lucky.” She added that she and Pearson are discussing ways to keep up with the changes in the elder population and delivering appropriate models of care.
For example, said Pearson, many of the residents have dementia. One of her goals is staff development and looking into creating a dementia-certification program.
“The more education, the better we can serve the population,” she said.
Garden Path board president Ted Vogt said Pearson has the perfect combination of work and academic experience that the organization needs.
Along with “an impressive academic background,” Vogt said Pearson has a reputation as a collaborative manager with the ability to build strong teams.
The organization has gone through multiple changes in recent years, including renovations to the Bradley House and its merger with Holton Home in 2015, he said.
The organization has also hired a business manager. “We can't expect the executive director to wear all the hats,” Vogt said.
He also praised McKellar for her work as the interim executive director, a position she has held since last September.
As a merged organization, Garden Path is still relatively young, he said. McKellar took care of the organization's daily needs, but she also continued work on merging the two facilities' respective policies and procedures.
McKellar's presence also allowed the board to conduct a thorough search, said Vogt, who thanked the staff and Bradley House neighbors for weathering the renovations.
Garden Path is becoming an organization “where the whole will be stronger than its parts,” he said. “I'm really high on what we have going here.”
Pearson has plans to reach out to the community and be visible. The organization is planning public events for the summer such as cookouts and music.
The public is always welcome to tour both buildings, she said.
McKellar said that people in both the homes have led extraordinary lives and have so much to offer.
“What impresses me the most is just how happy the residents are. I don't think they feel placed here,” McKellar said. “They come here willingly, and it grows on them.”
“I think it keeps them more up on what's going on and up on current events - they're not isolated,” Pearson said.
“And the good thing is, they can be as social as they want - it's not forced,” she noted.
Pearson added that because elders often remember details of their younger lives clearly, it is easy to sit and talk with the residents for hours.
“I could spend all day chatting with the residents,” she observed, “but there's work to be done.”