BRATTLEBORO — “There have been so many changes in the ways in which we treat our mentally ill and our elderly in our society,” says Sandy Ware, who has witnessed those changes locally firsthand over a long career of helping others, mainly at the Brattleboro Retreat and its former nursing home for resident patients, Linden Lodge.
At just 14 years old, Ware was hired by longtime Recreational Director Frank Dearborn to assist in running one of the playground programs for the recreation department. She retired from the Thompson House, where her title was “director of fun.”
In between, Ware became a “recreational therapist” at the Retreat, one of the oldest psychiatric hospitals in the country. “There was no such thing as an “activities director” at that time,” she says.
Ware worked at Linden Lodge, on the west side of Linden Street, which served as a nursing home for elderly Retreat patients.
Those who grew up in Brattleboro in the '50s, '60s, and '70s might well remember well many of the patients who walked the streets at the Retreat's discretion.
They were generally welcomed in town, despite their neuroatypicalities.
“It was a gentler time,” Ware recalls. “There weren't as many medications available to support mental health as there are now,” so patients' symptoms were more acute and more obvious.
As a result, “people were more welcoming to those people, supportive in their own way,” she says.
“If you lived here 50 years ago, you might remember a woman who was a resident at the Retreat who was quite wealthy, but had no family to care for her, so she lived there,” Ware recalls.
This patient would often walk into town, but she would compulsively steal from local merchants.
“There was an agreement between the Retreat and the shopkeepers that when she took items from their stores, the Retreat personnel would check her handbag when she returned and send checks to all the stores whose items she had stolen,” Ware says. “Can you imagine that?”
Several patients at the Retreat were World War I veterans, suffering from “shell shock,” what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
One local man told Ware that his grandfather returned from the war and was too frightened to live at home, so his family paid for his room at the Retreat, where he lived the rest of his life in the safety he desired.
Connecting patients with community
Ware, a 1969 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School, earned a degree from Greenfield Community College in recreational therapy. She briefly worked in Brandon and Rutland. By 1973, she was back in her hometown, working at Linden Lodge.
“When I took that job at Linden Lodge, I had a goal - something I've always felt strongly about, but [it] wasn't the way things worked at the time,” she adds.
And that goal? “To help the patients I worked with to remain participating members in their community,” Ware says.
Before medications for people with schizophrenia, depression, and personality disorders became available, one all-too-common treatment might have been a lobotomy: the severing of connections between different parts of the brain.
The surgery was intended to calm patients. Hailed by psychiatry as a breakthrough that could improve patients' lives, it was controversial even in its heyday in the 1940s.
“We had patients [who] had had lobotomies when they were younger, as that was considered a treatment at one time,” Ware says. “It was sad to see those people and realize how limited their lives had been.”
“When people would come into a facility, I would try to bring the community to them or get them back out in the larger community in town,” she says.
“At that time people in Linden Lodge would sit in their rooms all day, some of them looking out the window,” Ware recalls. “There was no 'recreation.'”
One of Ware's nurses told her that if the windows were opened so that residents could get some fresh air, they might die.
“She really believed that,” Ware says. “I told her I wanted to take some of the residents outside to let them sit in some fresh air, and she burst into tears. She really believed it shouldn't be done.”
'Hey, this is a good idea! We'll help!'
Ware, then in her 20s, became a force to be reckoned with, along with Lois Avery, Linden Lodge's administrator at the time.
“At that time in our society, people had compassion and respect for our elders,” Ware says. “There was a sense of community and that no one should be left out.”
“I remember visiting Linden Lodge as a teenager. I wanted a great atmosphere for the people who lived there. I decided that if I could make life better for the people in the institution, I was going to do just that, even if it was only 10 minutes a day,” she continues. “The community opened and said, “Hey, this is a good idea. We'll help!”
Ware began to move residents in their chairs outside onto the front lawn of the building. A drum player, she invited other musicians to join her there to play music while the residents enjoyed the fresh air.
In 1978, the Brattleboro Reformer counted 30 liquor licenses in a town with a reputation for having the most bars per capita in Vermont.
“I would offer band members all the beer they could drink during the hour that they played. With that bribe, I got a lot of musicians to come!” says Ware with a big laugh.
As people began to realize what Ware was up to, she found more and more volunteers to assist her.
Darrell Sawyer, football coach at Brattleboro Union High School, came with a football and shoulder pads and talked about the game. He spoke with the residents about current events, too.
“The residents loved it,” Ware says.
In the spring, Jay Bailey would bring a baby pig from Fair Winds Farm and leave it out back for the residents to tend to. Other volunteers brought in all sorts of animals - goats, llamas, rabbits, lambs, dogs, and cats - for the residents to enjoy, she recalls.
“I began thinking about what people like to do and brought those ideas to Linden Lodge in a smaller fashion,” Ware says of her strategy.
One example: “People like to go to Maine in the summertime, and they spend a week, so I made a trip to Maine happen for the residents, and we spent one night,” she says.
“Can you imagine how happy that made people?” Ware asks. “They were able to leave the nursing home and enjoy the smell of the ocean in Maine as we spent the night beside the ocean. Regular folks go on vacation, so we did, too.”
Ware spoke with the administrators of local elementary schools, and they began bringing teachers and students for regular visits. The children would sing songs for the residents and then visit with them. The residents loved it, and many of the kids did, too, she says.
“Occasionally, I'll see a younger person in their 30s, and they will say, 'I know you - I used to see you when I came to visit Linden Lodge,'” Ware says.
With each success the program grew. Ware would come up with an idea and then go to the source and ask how she could make it happen.
In the fall, residents enjoyed helicopter rides to see the foliage from the sky. They were driven in a golf cart over to the helicopter on the Retreat lawn, and off they'd go.
With the help of volunteer Lynn Taggart, Ware brought residents to the Latchis Theatre, which scheduled a special showing once a month for Linden Lodge.
Betty Tyler, then the owner of The Tavern on Putney Road, welcomed the residents to a cold beer. The American Legion invited the residents to enjoy lunch just up the street from Linden Lodge.
“We'd push wheelchairs up the hill regularly and the residents would really enjoy themselves,” remembers Ware with a smile.
They would frequently go out to eat.
“We went to the Country Kitchen in West Brattleboro. On one of those trips, I lost track of a resident,” she recalls.
She finally found him in a dining area downstairs.
“He had discovered that a bus-full of leaf peepers were having dinner, and he was busy pulling all the chairs out for the ladies,” Ware says. “He was such a gentleman.”
They'd go to Hogback Mountain and had dinner at the Hamilton's Restaurant. They'd drive to every fair they could find.
“Greenfield, the Big E, Wilmington, Northampton Fair - we went to every one of them,” Ware says. “We would also go to Smith College for the spring flower show.”
“We were told about a privately owned pond that we stocked with 200 trout,” she says. “The residents went fishing and fished the entire pond out. The fish were almost jumping out of the water and landing on their hooks!”
Integrating a special population into a diverse town
It was an interesting time for downtown Brattleboro. With Putney Road still farmland, local commerce was squarely focused downtown, where all the local grocery stores were located. It was busy.
International students from the Experiment in International Living or the School for International Training would be in town, providing a diversity not found in other Vermont towns at the time.
And because of the programs' global mission and connections, people of many colors would visit from every continent, also walked around downtown Brattleboro. Locals were often treated to the sound of many languages other than English.
In addition to the dyed-in-the-wool Vermonters and international academics, the hippies would come into town from the 16 to 20 communes exploding at the time in Guilford and Putney.
With this mix were people who varied greatly in dress, lifestyle, and even spoken language.
As Ware's programs became more varied, more people joined on to assist her.
“I had between 150 and 200 volunteers,” she says. “They brought music to Linden Lodge, all kinds of music. They helped me take the residents places. And as we had more people, the activities became even more varied.”
Volunteers assisted residents so that they could spend a night in West Brattleboro at Camp Waubanong.
“I had patients that had been living at Retreat all their lives,” Ware says. “I took them up to the camp for an overnight. I had the Retreat staff bring beds up for the dozen visitors, and we hung sheets to divide men from the women. The chef came up and made breakfast. It was a wonderful adventure.”
They went out to Packer Corners in Guilford to visit the hippies.
“I'll never forget,” Ware says. “We were sitting inside, and the people who lived there were so welcoming. I realized that one of the men wasn't sitting with us. I went outside and found him smoking a cigarette, holding a chicken.”
Ware put together a slide show and she went to the Women's Clubs, and service organizations, showed the pictures of what they were doing and raised the money to purchase a van for the residents. Then they were even more on the move.
“We used to drive over to Hinsdale Raceway, have lunch, and bet on the dogs,” she remembers. “One day, we came home with $400 in winnings! One of the residents did all the bidding on dollar tickets, and he kept picking all the winners.”
That was so popular, they would go to Mohegan Sun, a casino.
“I'd take six residents and six volunteers, and we'd be gone for six hours or so,” she says.
They joined the Fourth of July and Alumni Day Parades. The Retreat Farm brought a tractor with a hay wagon, and the residents would sit in the hay and wave at the crowd with volunteers playing music as they drove along.
“We took residents to Ray's Restaurant and played the jukebox. I decided I wanted to rent one for one month for Linden Lodge. The rental company in Boston that brought all the pinball machines to this area brought one to us, and we paid $90,” Ware says.
She remembers asking the man who brought the machine, “What's going to happen if you don't get your money?” His reply: “I'll break your kneecaps.”
“We only did that once,” said Ware, laughing at the memory.
Changes and passages
As the years rolled by, the Retreat sent the remainder of the hospital's lifetime residents to Linden Lodge and closed that portion of its programing.
“There were so many changes over the years in how elders and those with [mental] illness were treated,” Ware says. “We worked hard to create a community within our building and to bring the rest of the community to us.”
Ware says she always asked residents for their wish at Christmas time, and throughout the year, she tried to make that wish a reality.
“One resident wished for a McDonald's meal,” she says. “She enjoyed the meal one evening, and the next day she died.”
“There is so much loss in the work we do for older people,” Ware says. “There were so many deaths of people that I truly loved. It's a lot of loss over a career, but I always loved my job.”
'Making sure we all had fun'
Months before Linden Lodge closed in 2001, Ware left to work at several places and ended up at Thompson House, where she remained until her retirement eight years ago.
Upon her retirement in 2015, the Vermont Legislature honored her with a House Concurrent Resolution, sponsored by the three Brattleboro representatives - Mollie Burke, Tristan Toleno, and Valerie Stuart - celebrating her “creative leadership as a nursing home activities director.”
“Sandy Ware's primary role and true passion was organizing activities for Linden Lodge residents,” the resolution said.
The official proclaimation - among many other kudos - actually points out that “her ideas for residents' activities could range from the bold, allowing experimenting with marijuana, which was rejected; the audacious, facilitating balloon rides, a proposal that won management's reluctant approval; and the personally risky, renting a pinball machine from the Mafia, a project for which Sandy Ware took full responsibility.”
The House Concurrent Resolution celebrated “a career devoted to making the lives of nursing home residents happier.”
“I'm so sorry that I had to retire,” Ware says. “I made sure we all had fun every day. I just loved my job.”