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Touching Lives for a Living

August 24, 2008
The Journal

NEW ULM - "We touch lives for a living."

The thought - whose validity is verified in many comments by residents and families - comes from a brochure advertising Oak Hills Living Center (OHLC) - the facility that has provided care to seniors in the City of New Ulm and surrounding communities since 1958.

New Ulm's community-owned, non-profit, volunteer-governed facility- home to more than 125 seniors, in the skilled nursing facility and assisted living apartments combined - is celebrating its 50th anniversary next month.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Oak Hills Living Center

Former Springfield resident Ellis Badger (right) is the first resident to move in to Highland Manor, Sept. 14, 1959. Also pictured is his niece Mrs. Elmo Swanbeck.

The celebration includes an afternoon tea sponsored by the Oak Hills Auxiliary, 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27; an open house that includes tours and refreshments, 1:30-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, with a program at 3 p.m.; and tours at 1:30 each day, Monday, Sept. 29, through Friday, Oct. 3, with punch and cookies to be served.


The idea to develop a home for senior citizens originated in 1956, according to records provided by board member Kathy Backer. The committee charged with the responsibility included: Dr. Howard A. Vogel, Dr. T. R. Fritsche, Otto F. Oswald, Frank Schugel, Alfred Marti, Alan Schmucker, Victor P. Reim, John Heymann, Henry Somsen and Hazel Meine.

In 1958, the committee agreed on the need for a fund raising campaign. Bonds were issued to raise $275,000. (Citizens pulled together for the project; one person who pledged $500 actually bought $2,000 worth of the bonds, for example; and a few others also boosted their pledges, according to a Daily Journal progress report.)

The same year, the Articles of Incorporation for the New Ulm Memorial Foundation, a non-profit corporation, were adopted. Sixty-seven people bought $10 memberships into the foundation; the $670 made up the foundation's expense account. About ten acres of land on North Highland were purchased as a site for the home. Heymann Construction was awarded the bid to serve as the general contractor for construction of Highland Manor.

The entire home was built for $250,000.

The construction process was not painless.

"It was amusing to the building committee... how many things could turn out differently after the plans are completed, or the structure takes form, than it appears on paper," reminisced one of the founding fathers.

"It was found that some of the doors would not swing in the proper direction. We lost space because the doors were hung in an improper fashion. The paint had a different hue on the walls than it did on the sample. Water would run into the basement because of improper drainage..."

A steel shipment delay delayed construction; an electric elevator for food supplies was not in the specs, but the committee decided to add it - "for the convenience of the women."

"But through all these difficulties, we all hung together... I'm sure that we can speak for... the people who participated in this project when we say that... we have all become better citizens as a result of the time and participation we have given..."

Highland Manor welcomed its first resident, Ellis Badger, on Sept. 14, 1959. A newspaper photo shows a robust-looking 83-year-old man independently walking in, suitcase in hand, as if just moving into a different apartment.

The facility was originally designed to accommodate 60 residents. Monthly rates were $150 (compare that to the current $5,000).

"Extra wide doors - although prominent throughout the building - provide easy accessibility to the thoughtfully and tastefully furnished bedrooms at Highland manner," wrote the Daily Journal in a special issue, Sept. 25, 1959.

"Even though uniformity in some instances was inevitable, such as in the case of beds, dressers, closets and linens, bedrooms were designed to add that bit of individuality to make each resident feel at home."

"We often boast of new industry," the Journal also wrote. "We should boast of the industrious residents who have built a home for the old."

As a result of increased demand, Highland Manor continued to grow in size. It was expanded in 1963, 1972 and 1976. (A planned expansion didn't happen in 1969 and the money raised was returned.)

Seventy-two beds and an occupancy rate of just under 100 percent was reported in 1963; with the average occupant's age about 76-78 (it's 90-plus these days, current administrators note).

The 1976 expansion, by 26 beds, was intended to make up for the closure of the St. Alexander home, minimizing the need to send local residents to out of town locations.

"Someday I'll have walked my last mile," wrote Journal Editor Roger Matz, lobbying for the expansion. "My knees and back will rebel at planting and weeding my garden. I won't want to bother with all the silly chores its takes to keep a house going.

"At that point, I'd hope to find a good nursing home, populated by a few good friends with whom I could socialize and reminisce. But I wouldn't want to pull up stakes and move into a home out of town..."

As time passed, even the expanded Highland Manor was unable to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for its services. In 1992, the Board of Directors started a fund raising campaign with a goal of raising $600,000. The campaign helped provide part of the resources needed to build a replacement facility. The new $6 million facility, named Oak Hills Living Center, opened for operation on July 1, 1995. OHLC included 28 private rooms and 33 semi-private rooms for skilled nursing facility residents. An attached 16-unit assisted living apartment complex provided space for residents who needed less care.

A change in the state's method of reimbursing expenses for residents led to operating losses; management action to help curb the negative trends triggered a bitter labor dispute culminating in a strike in 1997.

Oak Hills, however, successfully weathered the turmoil, continuing to provide a quality service.

In 2000, Oak Hills Living Center was awarded a $1.22 million Housing and Urban Development grant to build an additional 16 assisted-living apartments. Some $300,000 was raised by OHLC to include expansion of the community room/chapel in the project. The project was completed, and the new apartments opened, in November 2003.

An active auxiliary and annual fund raising activities help provide significant financial support for the ongoing upgrades. Capital campaigns raise additional funds. Also, an endowment fund is in place for future projects.

During the past 50 years, Highland Manor/Oak Hills Living center has been admnistered by: Robert Juni, Gerald and Carol Larson, Elroy Ubl, Joseph Ramnarine, Fred Blumm, Carli Lindemann and the present co-administrators, Carli Lindemann and Candas Schouvieller.

Presently, Oak Hills Living Center is in the midst of a process called Culture Change - a national movement in nursing homes.

Culture Change is a transition from a medical, to a resident-directed, model of care - that creates a place that truly reflects home, explains administrator Carli Lindemann.

This model has demonstrated an improved satisfaction of residents, families and employees, and eliminated much of the stigma associated with moving to a nursing home.

The idea, more specifically, is to move from three "stations" to five households of 16-22 residents each, in which each community has its own living room, dining room and kitchen.

"We want a community home where residents are cared for by a consistent caregiver, in an environment that encourages resident choice and involvement focusing on the social needs of the person, in addition to the medical needs," says Lindemann.

The staff in the households will be dedicated to the household, and will be trained to empower the elders to make decisions in how they want to live their lives.

"We already created some of the program changes we dreamt about with the ultimate goal of creating more staff responsible for directly caring for residents, by opening breakfast, training former housekeepers and laundry staff as homemakers and adding washers and dryers in each household," says Lindemann.

"We also plan to upgrade the technology to reduce paper by transitioning to more electronic charting, and a call light system that uses pagers rather than loud bells. There will be locked medication cabinets in each resident's room to eliminate the large medication carts."

"Although the physical environment is extremely important, hands down the best way to provide quality care is to have consistent, properly trained caregivers that know the residents well," Lindemann stressed.

Construction on an addition and major renovation is scheduled to start in September, says Lindemann. The new addition creates 11 private rooms, and 11 current double rooms will become private. Oak Hills will transition from 28 private rooms to 50, with 22 semi-private double rooms. "Unfortunately, due to a law not allowing new nursing home beds, we are not able to care for more people. But we'll be really excited with the new renovated spaces."

Additional thanks to Brown County Historical Society Museum, research librarian Darla Gebhard and local historian and photographer Alan Gebhard for sharing records and photos used in this story.



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