A Sonogee resident talks with a volunteer in a YMCA "Togetherhood" program in 2015. The nursing home has announced plans to close and residents have 30 days to find another placement. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Sonogee closing will mean many move off-island

BAR HARBOR — Sonogee Rehabilitation and Living Center will close its doors in April, according to an announcement made by owner North Country Associates on Tuesday.

“We have 53 residents in-house today,” Mary Jane Richards of North Country Associates said in an email. “The residents have 30 days to find placement. We are working with all of them to help find them placement.”

For most residents, this means moving farther away. According to a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services website, there are 17 nursing homes within a 60 mile radius of Bar Harbor that accept MaineCare (Maine’s Medicaid program). The nearest one is in Ellsworth, the farthest one is in Camden. Most are in the greater Bangor area.

Nearby Birch Bay Village does not appear on that list because it is licensed as an assisted living facility, not a nursing home. Birch Bay is, however, currently licensed to provide six Medicaid beds.

“Everybody works together to make sure people have what they need [to relocate],” said Brenda Gallant, executive director of the Ombudsman Program, a statewide nonprofit organization that advocates for nursing home and other long-term care residents.

Gallant said in an interview Tuesday that her organization has already started working with Sonogee staff to let residents know their options, and ensure as smooth a transition as possible.

“When [a closure] happens, all the departments work together to transition residents to a new facility, or the community. We are there to help in every situation,” Gallant said, admitting it gets more challenging with each facility closure. Sonogee is one of seven nursing homes to have closed in the past year in Maine.

“It’s a big transition, very tough,” Gallant continued. “And the average age in nursing homes is 86. Relatives are older too, which makes it harder to travel and visit family members.”

The timeframe of 30 days also presents a challenge, Gallant said.

“Right at this moment, I’m looking at availability,” she said. “I will know more in the next couple days. What we have found in the past [is that] other facilities try to take in people and help out. If they have open beds, they make the closing facility a priority.”

According to a press release issued by North Country Associates, Sonogee Rehabilitation and Living Center began providing care for area seniors in the early 1980s, and has been owned and operated by North Country Associates since that time.

The press release cited the inability to maintain an adequate average daily occupancy as one of the factors in the decision to close. “This issue has been compounded by the MDI Hospital Swing Bed program, which directly decreased our admissions” for short-term stays, the statement said.

The MDI Hospital Swing Bed program started in 2000, as a short-term transitional program between hospital and home, according to hospital spokeswoman Oka Hutchins. The program served 134 patients according to the most recent annual report, with an average stay of 8.47 days per patient. There have been no recent changes to the program, hospital officials said.

The recent state minimum wage increase and competition from the hospitality industry, North Country Associates said, hampered the company’s ability to recruit and retain the necessary number of staff people to provide quality care.

The minimum wage in Maine has undergone incremental increases since 2017. Currently at $11.00 per hour, minimum wage is set to reach $12.00 per hour in 2020.

Sonogee currently employs 58 people year-round. The press release stated: “We know the decision to close is equally hard for the employees. There are neighbor facilities that have several staff openings and we hope all the area nursing homes will work together to find alternative employment for all 58 employees of Sonogee.”

Former employee Ginny Norwood, who continued to volunteer at the facility, said, “The staff that’s over there now is excellent. They’re more worried about the residents than they are about themselves.”

Norwood first worked at Sonogee 39 years ago.

“Over the years I had gone back there to visit,” she said. Last year she raised funds to design and build a flower garden and sitting area for residents.

“My plan is to retrieve the outside chairs and umbrellas, with [Sonogee’s] permission, and pass it on to some other program for seniors,” Norwood said. “There’s money left over from the flower garden, which I’ll use to do something for other elderly [programs]. There’s almost $20,000 of work in the back yard and it will be really sad if it gets bulldozed.”

The property and buildings on Eden Street are assessed for town tax purposes at $4,457,200.

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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