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Small-Scale Assisted Living Makes Elderly Mainers Feel At Home

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Jill Wallace (second from left) runs a "small, family-style assisted living" in a 1800s-era house in Topsham.

This story originally aired Thursday, March 2.

As we age, some of us may reach a point where we can no longer live independently. Assisted living is often the next step. While the typical assisted living model houses dozens of residents, there’s a growing trend to offer smaller, home-based alternatives.

This story is the latest in our series “In This Life.”

It’s 5 p.m., time for Elizabeth, or “Lee,” Damioli to do one of her favorite things. She puts down the book she’s reading in a soft chair next to her bedroom window, grabs hold of her walker and makes her way down the hall to the kitchen.

Three other women sit at an oval table in a large, eat-in kitchen. The chef on duty, Elaina Barker, serves up homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas and carrots.

As the women settle into their dinner, they talk and tease each other. Turns out, jabs about age never get old.

“Guess you’re 90-something, aren’t you, Lee?” one resident says.

“You had to tell. 95,” Damioli says.

“Ninety-five, oh heavens,” another resident says.

It feels like a typical family dinner, but this isn’t a private home. It’s Elm Street Assisted Living.

“It’s a small, family-style assisted living for frail, elderly women,” says Jill Wallace, the owner and manager of the 1800s-era house in Topsham where up to six women at a time reside.

Residents have their own private rooms with baths on the first floor, where there are also two living rooms to spread out. In the large, open kitchen they’re free to join in the cooking or offer advice to the staff person making the meal.

“I like spaghetti. And I like it well cooked, I don’t like it al dente. So I’ve taught her to cook it,” Damioli says. “But she makes a good spaghetti sauce.”

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Elizabeth "Lee" Damioli

Elm Street opened about 10 years ago, after Wallace realized she wouldn’t be able to support her aging mother on her social worker salary. When she saw this house for sale, she got a vision for how to care for her mom, and others.

“I thought, I’ll make a safe home for elderly women, and they will be able to live their lives at the end in the way they want to,” she says.

To stay here, it costs $4,000-$5,000 a month, about average for assisted living in Maine. Wallace, who lives upstairs, is on-call at night. A few staffers rotate shifts so that one person is on at all times during the day. They cook, clean, bathe residents, help them get dressed and dispense medications.

“When you need care, real luxury is that you know your caregiver, and your caregiver knows you. And you have a warm and caring relationship. It’s a very intimate thing to have someone give you a shower, help you toilet, comb your hair or find your dentures,” Wallace says.

The women who live here can come and go as they please, as long as they inform the staff. But Wallace says unless family or friends stop by to take them on an outing, most residents stick close to home.

“I’m not a party-type person,” Damioli says.

Before Damioli came here, she lived in Pennsylvania. After her husband passed away, she fell and broke her hip. She spent time in a rehab and says it gave her a taste of what living in a larger facility feels like. She had a roommate and shared a bathroom, and she missed her privacy.

“I found the people coming and going almost too much. They had bingo and things. It was friendly enough and everything, but I wasn’t used to it. I had never been in any place like that,” she says.

The smaller, quieter group at Elm Street suits her better, Damioli says.

“I read, and can come into my room when I’m tired and throw my feet up without being disturbed. I do puzzles out in the living room,” she says. She has earned a reputation among residents as a master puzzle assembler, taking on the hardest ones.

Damioli gets frequent visits from her daughter who lives nearby. But when she thinks about living into her 90s, she says she misses other family and friends who have passed away.

“The only thing I would say is it’s lonely. It’s lonely,” she says.

Damioli says she’s thankful for the companionship she has found with residents and staff at Elm Street Assisted Living.

“They become your friends. They know when you’re hurting and when you’re not hurting. That’s the nice thing about them. And they’re very conscientious. If I’m sitting in my room, they’ll stop down – ‘How are you doing? Do you need something?’” she says.

For Damioli, that’s a comfort.

“Oh yes, this is your home. This is your home,” she says.

Maine Public Radio’s series “In This Life” is made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.