When Thomas Plant built the original Plant Memorial Home in Bath a century ago, his goal was simple: to provide a place where elderly members of the community could live and receive care after they had given so much to their city.
Today this mission is carried on by Executive Director Liz Ford Wyman and her staff at the assisted living facility located on Washington Street on the banks of the Kennebec River. The white columned, stately building is known by locals as the “Mansion on the Hill,” and it has a special place in Liz’s heart.
“I’ve always lived in this community, and the Plant Home has always been a significant part of this community since I was a kid,” said Liz, who grew up in Phippsburg next to the City of Ships. “It’s just a place that has always been around.”
She remembers how commonplace it was for Brownie troops, Girl Scouts, and Cub Scout troops to visit residents and do fun activities with them, especially during the holidays.
The COVID-19 pandemic that hit Maine and the rest of the country in March has put a temporary stop to those kinds of programs for now. Despite the enormous challenges posed by the pandemic, Liz explained the Plant Memorial Home has not had one case.
As of mid-December, Liz said 20 of the Plant Memorial Home’s 37 assisted living rooms were occupied. All of the 20 units that comprise the Thomas Cottages, which are for independent living, are full. As of December 10, 2020, Saghadoc County had 49 active cases and 192 confirmed cases. There have been no reported deaths.
One thing that separates the Plant Memorial Home from other assisted living facilities in Maine is their low-income program to help elderly people with limited financial assets to become residents. Liz explained that until 15 years ago, the value of a resident’s financial assets determined how many years they could live at the home along with the help of the endowment. “We are considered low-income housing and are private pay facility,” she said.
Since COVID-19 first made its presence felt, Liz said the staff has been forced to do everything differently.
The most difficult part has been not allowing family members to visit their loved ones inside the home. Saying no to visits from community members has also been difficult, since these interactions are such a key component of the facility’s culture.
“I think we truly take for granted how much we touch each other and how much we need that contact,” Liz observed.
Liz said they created a visitor’s window near the executive director’s front door that was widely used by family members during the summer months. It is simply a window with a screen where a visitor and resident are separated eight feet apart and of course wearing masks. Now that winter is here, no one is using the window.
During the first few months of the pandemic, Liz said residents were forced to stay in their rooms and have their meals delivered to their doors. They were permitted to socialize in small groups. Now, in the dining hall, to ensure proper social distancing, two residents are seated at a table instead of four.
Staff members have all been given strict orders not to report to work if they have any flu-like symptoms. When staff members do report for work, they have their temperature taken. The only other people who are permitted to go inside the home are physical therapists, occupational therapists, and outside maintenance vendors, Liz said. The Plant Home has 30 full-time and part-time staff members that include a director of nursing, her staff, dietary, activities, and maintenance personnel. They are all certified in CPR and First Aid.
The staff observes all necessary procedures and protocols to keep the virus out of the home, Liz stressed. If a staff member takes vacation time that involves traveling out of the state, they have to be tested and show a negative result before they can return to work. Staff members also cannot eat with other staff members and must wear their masks constantly to ensure safety for the quarantine period after testing negative.
Some of staff members may have kids coming home from college for the holidays and will check with the director’s office to make sure it is okay for them to report to work.
When new residents move into the Plant Memorial Home, they can no longer have family members help them unpack and get settled, Liz said.
New residents also had to quarantine for 14 days (now 10 days), which is hard for them, Liz said. Her staff has met this challenge by engaging with residents even more than they did before COVID-19.
“My staff is phenomenal and just takes them on like they just got a new grandparent,” Liz said.
She said the home’s mail is delivered outside, as are the grocery orders.
The home also has a bus and car, which are used to take residents on excursions, The pandemic has curbed most of those trips, but Liz said they took a few residents for a ride to the beach this summer. They planned to use the car to take small groups to see the holiday light display at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay in December. During that excursion and any other, everyone will observe all of the necessary mask and social distance protocols.
“With the COVID pandemic threat, no matter what you are doing, it takes 10 extra steps to execute it. It almost takes a meeting to think everything through,” Liz said. “It’s very cumbersome.” But she takes the extra steps in stride, knowing how important they are.
Liz is well aware of the COVID-19 outbreaks that have happened at other assisted living facilities in Maine. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.”
She and her staff will continue to do everything in their power to protect their residents and each other, no matter how much longer the pandemic persists. Liz understands why some people may be hesitant to help a loved one transition into Plant Home.
“I think folks are kind of hunkering down where they are, instead of placing them right now,” she said.
But Liz also wants people to know they should have full confidence that if they want to have a family member live at the Plant Memorial Home, that family member will be safe and well cared for.
“The reputation speaks for itself. The fact is that we have not had any cases. Our protocols and procedures have been really solid. I can’t promise anything, but we work very hard,” said Liz, who will mark three years as the executive director in April. She previously served on the home’s board of directors.