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Blazing a Culture Change Trail in Wyoming

January 22, 2015

“I assume that audacity is a Wyoming trait,” says Robert Jenkins, former director of The Green House® Project, in a new documentary called Homes on the Range: The New Pioneers. “You had to be fairly audacious for your forebears to move here as pioneers. And that is, I think, what has given you the courage to move forward on this project.”

The project he’s referring to is a successful, years-long grassroots effort to build a Green House home in Sheridan, Wyoming — the country’s first such home to exist independently of a larger organization. Homes on the Range documents that effort, explicitly linking it to Wyoming’s pioneer history. A coalition of Sheridan residents, determined to honor and support their town’s large elder community, had to forge into uncharted territory to achieve its goal.

Green Houses are radically different from traditional nursing homes. Unlike the coldly clinical look of traditional facilities, Green Houses are designed to be a true home. They also offer their residents far more freedom than the prevailing institutional nursing home model. In Homes on the Range, Heather Barney of the Sheridan Green House says, “We ask [elders] what they want. We don’t tell them what they want.”

But because they are so different from traditional nursing homes, Green Houses are often seen as a financial risk. That’s why they are funded, built, and operated with the support of a larger, more established entity — a hospital, a church, etc. — known in Green House parlance as a “mothership,” or a “legacy home.”

In Sheridan, however, all attempts to locate a mothership came up empty. So Sheridan’s Green House coalition blazed their own trail. In Homes on the Range, director Dale Bell (who is also co-founder of the nonprofit Media Policy Center, which creates socially conscious documentaries) used footage shot from 2001 to 2013 to tell the story of the country’s first-ever 100% grassroots Green House.

Securing the $10 million to get the Green House built was not easy. The film shows members of the Sheridan community making phone calls, attending meetings, and rubbing elbows with local business leaders to try to get the project off the ground. They faced setbacks beyond the financial realm as well: Wyoming law, for example, forbade nursing homes with open kitchens. (A key element of Green House homes is that kitchens are open to all residents at all times, so that they can cook and prepare meals like any person in living in their own home would be able to do.) Working with a key ally in the state legislature, the local Green House coalition was able to get that law, and others like it, reversed.

The financial calamity that gripped the country in 2008 and 2009 dried up funding streams from investors. But, with key support from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the coalition cobbled together enough money to make the Green House a reality. Groundbreaking was held in November 2010, and the Sheridan Green House opened its doors in February 2012.

Bell’s film shows the difficulty of effecting meaningful change in a hidebound industry: The Sheridan Green House took nearly 10 years to go from initial idea to grand opening. It also provides a brief crash-course on the history of nursing homes in the U.S., using bleak archival footage from the 1970s to illustrate the necessity of culture change. (In one clip from 1975, Matilda, a 92-year-old nursing home resident, tells an interviewer: “I don’t have any home any more. There’s only this.”) And throughout the film, Dr. Bill Thomas, an expert on aging and the co-creator of The Green House Project, evangelizes enthusiastically about the necessity of culture change. Quality long-term eldercare affects everyone, he says: “If you don’t get run over by a bus, you’re going to get frail.” That so many people still accept the institutional model of nursing home care — in which residents have no choice, no freedom, and no privacy — is a “national tragedy,” Dr. Thomas continues.

The film also looks in on a training session of Sheridan Green House employees, including shahbazim, the Green House version of certified nursing assistants. The Green House model elevates the importance of shahbazim beyond their traditional nursing home roles, the film explains. Shahbazim have honored positions within the Green House hierarchy; they work primarily for the elders, not for supervisors or administrators.

Anna Ortigara, then a development director and workforce consultant at the Green House Project, is shown in the film overseeing a month-long training of nurses and Shahbazim. Ortigara, who is now a PHI Organizational Change Consultant, marvels at the fact that the Sheridan Green House is “a truly grassroots Green House project.” She points out that two members of Sheridan’s Green House coalition took on the role of becoming Green House educators themselves. “They were the leads on teaching these new staff members, and they are volunteers from the town. How special is that?”

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