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‘Green House’ Nursing Homes Expand as Communities Reinvent Elder Care

Susan Dentzer reports on the "green houses" project, which seeks to
reinvent traditional nursing home care and create close-knit communities of patients and caregivers. Some observers, however, question the homes' financial feasibility.

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  • SUSAN DENTZER, NewsHour Health Correspondent:

    Dr. Bill Thomas was already one of the nation's most outspoken nursing home reformers when we first interviewed him six years ago.

    DR. BILL THOMAS, Geriatrician and Nursing Home Reformer: What you're seeing right now is the end of the American nursing home. It is finished. And the big question that really ought to be on the lips of the politicians, and the leaders, and the academics is: What comes next?

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    At that time, Thomas had started down the road to the next phase, with something called the Eden Alternative. The approach revamped the nursing home in various ways, most visibly with plenty of green plants and even animals.

    What Thomas came up with next was what he called "Green Houses," small, homelike settings where care for elders, rather than the demands of the institution, came first.

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    This house really, for me, is a dream come true.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    Today, that vision is a reality, here at this Green House in Lincoln, Nebraska. It's operated by Tabitha Health Services, a Lutheran-affiliated nonprofit focused on long-term care.

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    Hi, I'm Dr. Thomas.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    When Thomas visited for the first time recently, he talked with Eva Goldsby, one of nine residents here. She told him that the Green House feels much more like home than Tabitha's other traditional nursing home.

    EVA GOLDSBY (ph), Resident, Tabitha: This is a lovely place to be at.

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    Why is it different than the big house?

  • EVA GOLDSBY:

    Well, it's just like being at home.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    At times, in fact, the Green House seems more like a clubhouse for seniors than a skilled long-term care facility. Two afternoons a week, for instance, there's happy hour.

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    What do you like to have at happy hour?

  • EVA GOLDSBY:

    Beer, usually.

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    Beer? Yes, I think I'll join you.

  • EVA GOLDSBY:

    Yes, red beer, sometimes.

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    Oh, red beer?

  • EVA GOLDSBY:

    Yes, do you like that?

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    I've never tried it.

  • EVA GOLDSBY:

    Oh, just tomato juice in beer.

  • DR. BILL THOMAS:

    Oh, whoa!

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    There are now 35 Green Houses up and running on 13 campuses across the country. In partnership with a nonprofit, NCB Capital Impact, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is spending nearly $10 million to replicate the model nationwide. The foundation also funds the NewsHour's Health Unit.

    It's cold here in Nebraska, and the ground is covered with snow, so you can't really tell why this is called a Green House. The name is meant to invoke sunlight, plants, access to outdoor spaces, the opposite of the feeling you get inside the conventional nursing home.

    That was part of the appeal for Joyce Ebmeier, who ran Tabitha's traditional nursing facility here and went on to lead the project to build the Green House.

    She first heard Thomas talk about the concept at a 2001 conference.

  • JOYCE EBMEIER, Tabitha Heath Care Services:

    He said, "I want you all to close your eyes, and I want you to think about, 10 years from now, what the nursing home would look like." What came to my mind was I was putting a big padlock on the door, and I was smiling. I was happy. And I opened my eyes kind of fast and thought, "What in the world was that?"

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