2015-03-27 / Front Page

Sweet centennial

Cape Home celebrates 100 years of serving seniors
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Betty Deschenes, left, 88, who graduated from South Portland High School in 1944, and California native Corinne Frideman, 86, are two of nine residents at The Cape Elizabeth Home, a senior living center located at 521 Ocean St. in South Portland, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. (Duke Harrington photo) Betty Deschenes, left, 88, who graduated from South Portland High School in 1944, and California native Corinne Frideman, 86, are two of nine residents at The Cape Elizabeth Home, a senior living center located at 521 Ocean St. in South Portland, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — There are a lot of old folks homes in southern Maine, but only a very few in which the building is older than the folk who call it home.

One such place is The Cape Elizabeth Home, located at 521 Ocean St. in South Portland. Established with a grant and land donation in 1893, the brick cape was built in 1915, the same year the first residents were welcomed. That not only makes it the oldest rest home in South Portland, it’s also South Portland’s oldest continually operating business of any kind.

Even the name of the Cape Elizabeth Home is a testament to its age. In 1893, when Irene Higgins gave the land at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer Streets in memory of her parents, Jonah and Elizabeth Dyer, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth were still a single municipality, united under the latter name.


A pair of photos and a dedication plate on a parlor post of The Cape Elizabeth Home, a senior living center located at 521 Ocean St. in South Portland, recognizes prominent Cape farmers Jonah and Elizabeth Dyer, whose daughter, Irene Higgins, created the home in their memory. (Duke Harrington photo) A pair of photos and a dedication plate on a parlor post of The Cape Elizabeth Home, a senior living center located at 521 Ocean St. in South Portland, recognizes prominent Cape farmers Jonah and Elizabeth Dyer, whose daughter, Irene Higgins, created the home in their memory. (Duke Harrington photo) That’s why what was originally known as the Cape Elizabeth Home for Aged Women was so named, even though it’s actually in South Portland, because everything around it was still Cape.

Higgins donated the land and $10,000 of an inheritance from her parents to create the home in their memory. It was a sizable gift — $259,495 in 2014 dollars — but it was only the starting principal. Interest on the original donation built the home, and that took 22 years to accrue.

“The foundation’s association, or the board of directors as it’s now known, met every year to look at the investments and, finally, in 1914, they realized they had enough money,” said Millie Giesecke, administrator of the home since 2001.

“I’ve got all the old notes from the meetings back then, from the people who built the home,” Giesecke said. “They’re really quite interesting. The local women’s clubs furnished it, and the churches helped out. Local grocers donated food. It was like a community project, everybody donated. There were all kinds of donation parties. It was licensed as a charity back then by the state and the residents were completely taken care of by the board and the community.”

Giesecke began working at Cape Elizabeth Home in 1987, which was an era of transition for the venerable institution.

Originally, only women were accepted as residents, but only if they were at least 60 years old — a fairly advanced age at the time — and had lived at least 10 years in Cape Elizabeth or South Portland. In another qualifying factor, prospective residents had to possess what directors deemed to be “good moral character.” Residents would sign over all of their bank accounts and possessions to the home, and in return it would take care of them for the rest of their lives, providing food, shelter, clothing, daily care and burial.

The home stopped taking applicants for lifetime care in 1980, and just two of lifers remained when Giesecke arrived for her first day of work seven years later. That also was the year the home’s last live-in “matron,” whose job it was to look after the residents, was replaced by a professional administrator.

“At the time of the change, the home was having to pay for nursing homes for its most elderly and infirm residents. We couldn’t possibly do that now,” Giesecke said.

Today, Cape Elizabeth Home is licensed by the state as an independent living community for up to 11 residents. Essentially, it is a boarding home for the elderly — it began taking in men in the early 1990s — who may no longer feel comfortable living on their own, but who do not require medical care.

“People tend to stay in their homes longer now, so they tend to not come here until they really, really need to, and it generally isn’t long after that before some will need assisted living, or a nursing home,” Giesecke said. “But most residents will last several years here.”

Today, two of the home’s nine occupants are men. Most are in their 80s. Residents get meals and household services from the home’s 10 staffers, including Giesecke, whose job as administrator is hardly limited to office work. On any given day, she can be found doing anything from clearing dishes to doing laundry for the residents.

Each resident has his or her own room, and most have a private bath. There are shared common rooms and residents come and go as they please, setting their own schedules, according to their own interests.

“What sets this place apart is that it’s definitely a home,” Giesecke said. “It’s not a facility or an institution. You have to be able to take care of yourself. We don’t have medical care. It’s a home, and we try to make it as personal and homey as possible. It’s a friendly, quiet, safe, personal environment.”

“My daughter looked around for me and she thought this place was wonderful,” said Elizabeth Deschenes, 88, a South Portland native who has lived at the home for two years.

“When I came to check things out, I found really nice people here, so that’s why I chose it,” Deschenes said. “It’s turned out to be wonderful. The people who run it and manage it are amazing. It’s a wonderful place to be. I don’t know where I’d be without this home”

Deschenes was Betty Berg when she graduated from South Portland High School in 1944. She grew up on Cliff Avenue and admits she knew nothing about the Cape Elizabeth Home until she became a resident.

“I lived near the beach, which I loved, and that was about all I really cared about at the time,” she recalled, with a laugh, while seated in the Cape Home living room.

After meeting her future husband Joe at the University of Southern Maine, or the Gorham Teacher’s College as it was then known, Deschenes taught for a year in Cape Elizabeth. The couple then moved to Presque Isle, where both taught, although Deschenes soon took time off to raise her four children. The Deschenes later moved to Lewiston, the city where they spent most of their lives. Joe taught and served for a time as superintendent, while Betty returned to lead kindergarten classes once her own kids were past that age.

These days, Deschenes is one of Cape Home’s more active residents, taking part in many group activities — the weekly concerts put on in the home by local musicians are a favorite pastime — and she can often be seen cruising the sidewalks in the area on her regular walks.

But not all residents are social butterflies. Corinne Frideman, 86, is a California native who can remember singing for the soldiers in convalescence homes during World War II as an eighth-grader. After a life of criss-crossing the country with her mathematician husband, she came to Maine in 1991 after his death, for no particular reason other than it was a place she had not yet been.

Today, Frideman is a voracious reader of mysteries, having long since worked through everything the Cape Home has on its shelves.

“Betty and Corine represent two different trends here,” Giesecke said. “Corinne likes to be solitary and spends all of her time reading. We’ve tried to provide as many books a possible for her and it isn’t always easy to keep up. Betty on the other hand is more extroverted. She takes part in beano and the concerts. The can be solitary or social, if they desire.”

“And I do desire sociability,” said Deschenes, with a laugh.

“I’m used to living alone,” said Frideman, “so I still like my independence. But I’m very content here, and Millie keeps me supplied with a lot of mysteries.”

In addition to the Home’s own supply, it gets regular drop-offs from the South Portland Public Library. But Giesecke notes she’s always eager for book donations, as it’s getting increasingly hard to land a library delivery without a few things Frideman has already read.

The home also looks to the community for entertainment, seeking musicians and others to perform for residents. However, Giesecke notes that she always clears each new program with every resident. Although welcome additions, she would not foist an adopt-a-grandparent or therapy dog program, just to name a couple of examples, on any resident who did not want it, she says.

“Anyone who wants to come in and entertain, that’s always appreciated,” Giesecke said. “But the best thing to do is to contact me first so I can check with the residents first. The way we look at it, this is their home and I would not bring someone in unless a resident had expressed a desire for it.

“I can say we really appreciate people who come in and help us with gardening, to plant things and weed, because we don’t have a regular person who does that,” Giesecke said.

The home also can use financial and in-kind donations, which are tax deductible, given its nonprofit status.

“The investments on the original sum is what we get by on, although the stock market hasn’t been very good to us this year, and also the residents pay,” Giesecke said. “We recently had to raise our rents for new residents to $1,500 per month, just to meet the expenses. But what the residents pay alone would not be enough to run the place.”

While $1,500 might seem expensive, Giesecke said it includes meals and general care.

“If you were living in your own place but paying someone to come in and do all of your shopping, cooking and housework, as some elderly people do, I think this is still a good deal,” Giesecke said.

And, with low turnover on the staff — the most recent addition has been at the Home for three years — the caretakers become like family friends, Giesecke said.

“We are taken care of,” said Frideman, adding with a laugh, “In fact, my biggest job is putting away my clean laundry because they take care of it and everything else.”

“Frankly, I love it here,” said Deschenes. “It’s a very nice place to live. You’re on your own, but you’re taken care of. I feel very, very fortunate. I’m so glad my daughter found it.”

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