AUBURN | The postcards and picture frames that line the walls in Charles Hitchcock's room tell stories of a country boy with a love for his family and the simple things in life.
Round glass containers filled with honey line the shelves of his desk. A box of chocolates for his sweet tooth, peanuts and the newspaper are all regular staples to his daily routine. And a small collection of fiddles perched up against a wall brimming with photos next to his bed lay ready to be played at a moment's notice.
Hitchcock recently celebrated his 90th birthday and the father of eight and grandfather talks of days gone by when he was an avid farmer, adventurer, fiddler and builder.
“I've always been a farmer and I was always busy doing something,” he said. “In other words, if I didn't have something I'd just build it.”
Today, Hitchcock's adventures are memories that he fondly shares from the comfort of his room in the Cayuga County Nursing home. After being hospitalized for congenital heart failure a year and a half ago, he came to the nursing home for rehab, and eventually he and his family made the decision to relocate him permanently into the home.
After careful consideration, family members, including his daughter Nelsa Selover, agreed it was the best possible outcome. Reluctantly, Hitchcock arrived at the nursing home and slowly started to integrate into his new life. Despite the major life change, he's found solace and comfort, he said, in a home away from home.
“I don't want to be in a nursing home. I want to go home. That's where I really want to be,” he said. “But if I've got to go somewhere then I'd rather be here. This is as close to feeling like home for me.”
Hitchock is one of the 80 residents at the county nursing home, and like many others who line the halls and fill the beds at the County House Road facility in Sennett, he is concerned over his future.
In late July, Cayuga County Legislators announced a potential merger between the nursing home and Mercy Health & Rehabilitation Center in Auburn. The consolidation of facilities could be a solution to the financial strain the county nursing home is putting on the county budget because revenue from operations does not cover expenses.
The news came on the heels of news that Mercy was awarded $19.9 million in state Department of Health HEAL grant funds. Those funds will allow the facility to meet state mandates and improve long-term care in the county. Combining both facilities would bring the Mercy building up to a 300-bed facility, which officials said would mean more jobs and more beds in the community and better reimbursement from government insurance programs.
But many residents and their family members don't want to see any merger move forward.
For Hitchcock and his family, the decision to be part of the county nursing home was in part due to its country feel and small-town environment, Selover said.
“My dad is so happy here. He has a bird feeder to look at and green grass to watch grow and people know him here — they really know him,” she said. “They know he's up early and likes to be dressed before breakfast and they know that he wants apple juice for his afternoon snack. Those little things may seem trivial to some, but for him and for us it's a big deal.”
Legislators have met with staff members and residents and their families on multiple occasions, and while a final decision has yet to be made, many nursing home residents are skeptical about the future of their home.
For Selover, the issue is far greater than just her father, she said. It's about today's aging population and future generations of people who will require the comforts of a stable, caring and friendly nursing home environment. Having options for the aging population is crucial and she said she's not convinced that an expanded operation at Mercy is the answer.
“I think legislators are torn about what to do,” she said. "I think in their hearts they would like to keep this place open, but they also fight the responsibility of keeping the budget down.”
Moving from a country environment where everyone knows your name to a larger facility in the city would be a culture shock to many residents, Selover added. Other family members agreed.
Barbara Wawroysek and Carole Baumgather both visit the nursing home on a daily basis. Like Selover, they too fear for the future of the nursing home.
“My mother is here and she's just in her element,” Wawroysek said. “She has activities and games and friends, and she's well taken care of and I know that I can come in here and it doesn't feel or smell like a nursing home.”
Baumgather fears for the change in scenery and can't fathom going to a future high-rise facility surrounded by concrete and inside a building that she said is already worn down and old. She said she hopes that legislators will offer up more details about a potential long-term plan.
“Is there a plan to adapt? Are they using other nursing home business models?” she said. “And I know that they're talking about beds but we're talking about people."
Legislators have been encouraged to move forward with Mercy as part of the grant. They are also consulting with Syracuse-based long-term care facility operator Loretto to be the active parent company for the merger.
In late December, the county received notice from the state giving the go-ahead to make a decision on the project.
During the January full Legislature meeting, Chairman Michael Chapman updated officials on the nursing home process.
“We continue to gather information and that's about all I can tell you,” Chapman said. “We had a meeting a week ago with Mercy and Loretto present, and we advised them on exactly what we needed before we can make any decision.”
He added: “As soon as we get something we will necessitate some sort of special meeting and get things rolling because we all know the clock is ticking.”
In the meantime, Selover and her father sit and wait hoping, they said, that all things are considered before legislators make their decision.
“If they've ever had a family member go through something like this would they be inclined to shut it down like they plan to do?” she said. “It's not just a bed or an elderly person, it's a human being who has feelings and that's what it should be about. Those beds are occupied by people with stories and families and lives.”