One may not immediately see a direct connection between 91-year-old Ruth Carter and the runaway hit “Dancing with the Stars” on ABC and hence the more locally produced version that will occur here next weekend.
Yet there is one, and it is really the most important connection of all.
I caught my first glance of Ruth as she sped by Karen Higgins’ office on the second floor of the Phillips-Strickland House in Bangor.
And I’m not kidding when I use the word “sped.” Walker or no walker, she was on the fly and stopped for only a moment to introduce herself.
She was on her way to the lobby to gather with a few other residents for Daily Devotions.
Twenty minutes later she was back and settled into a chair in the sun-soaked office.
It didn’t take long to understand that Ruth Carter does not need to be in what may be considered a traditional nursing home.
Ruth is social and smart and takes part in nearly every activity offered at the Boyd Street assisted living facility, where she has lived for the past nine years.
She goes to Daily Devotions each morning, eats three meals a day with the staff and other residents, plays bingo, takes attendance at social events when the recreation director is absent, knits hats for the premature babies at Eastern Maine Medical Center and knits other items for the house’s annual holiday fair.
And when she sat down for an interview with me earlier this week, she got right to the business of finding out a little bit about me.
“I’ve always been curious,” she said, “ever since I’ve been reading your name in the paper if you are from the Ordways in Etna.”
“I am,” I told her, and she was clearly tickled to have finally confirmed it.
She then proceeded to whip off a list of my Etna kin, names she remembered as easily as those of her own family.
She also wanted to be sure I understood just how grateful she was to have a home at the Phillips-Strickland House and how well she was treated and cared for.
Ruth lived on a farm in Etna and knows about hard work and modest living.
She spent years working in the kitchen at the Log Cabin Restaurant in Newport and then in the cafeteria at the Etna Dixmont School.
“That was hard work,” she said.
That she doesn’t have to do her own laundry anymore or cook her own meals is something she clearly appreciates.
“I don’t even have to do the dishes,” she said, chuckling. “But the people. Oh, the people are so good. I love every one of them. I appreciate everything here so much, so I try to do whatever I can to help out.”
On this day she spoke to Higgins, the executive director at Phillips-Strickland House, about a couple of banking issues and Department of Health and Human Services forms that need to be filled out.
Ruth’s daughter had just recently visited and between all of them they were making sure that some necessary paperwork was completed for the state.
Ruth’s rather modest life on a farm in Etna may not have led her to believe that she would ever be able to afford the type of care that she is getting.
Her husband passed away in 1980 and Ruth later moved into a small apartment in Newburgh. But when her granddaughter became concerned for her safety and her ability to keep up with the place, they went looking for a safer and more social facility.
That was nine years ago, and certainly, as is the case today, Ruth didn’t need the level of care offered at traditional nursing homes.
They found Phillips-Strickland, which is the only nonprofit assisted living facility in the area that opens all of its 48 beds to anyone over the age of 65 regardless of their ability to pay. In other words, it provides for the elderly population covered only by MaineCare. Most others in the area are either all private pay-designated or designate only a small portion of their beds for MaineCare clients.
“The level of care and assistance we provide depends on the needs of the resident,” Higgins said. “Some simply need help with medication management and companionship and a set of eyes to ensure their safety.
They don’t need a nursing home yet. We are that option for them and for their families, but for too many of them it’s either a nursing home or being alone because there are so few options available for those who are MaineCare-eligible.”
It’s basically the same mission that the facility has had since it opened in the 1800s, when Mary Phillips rode from Bangor to Augusta in a cart and buggy to tell a room full of male lawmakers that the state had to do something to help care for a growing number of elderly women — many of them war widows — who had no resources to care for themselves.
She convinced them. The system was devised so that the women in need would relinquish all of their worldly goods to the organization and they would be cared for for the remainder of their lives.
It’s not terribly different today, said Higgins.
“The residents here give up their monthly pension or Social Security, except for $70 per month, which they get to keep. MaineCare covers another percent of the care, but there is quite a gap between that and the actual cost of the care, because we are held to a certain level of care by the state,” she said.
“It’s that gap — the gap between the revenues from their Social Security and MaineCare reimbursement and the actual cost of the care — that we need to fill, and we fill that by fundraising.”
And therein lies the connection between Ruth Carter and so many of the other residents at Phillips-Strickland and “Dancing with the Stars.”
On Saturday, March 17, the fourth annual Phillips-Strickland House Dancing with the Stars event will take place at the Bangor Civic Center. The event, like the ABC show, pairs local celebrities — or well-knowns — with area dancing professionals. For weeks they have been practicing their footwork.
Next Saturday night each team will dance for votes, which cost just a buck a piece (and ballot-stuffing is encouraged). There will be dessert and dancing after the show. Call 941-2820 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for tickets.
Ruth is well enough to leave the facility once in a while to visit with her family and she occasionally does overnights, but she’s grateful to have a place of her own. And that is the Phillips-Strickland House.
It’s the way it should be done. It’s the way all of our senior citizens should be cared for — affordably and with the support of the community.