South Portland boarding home enters its 2nd century

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SOUTH PORTLAND — One of the oldest retirement facilities in southern Maine faces a modern financial challenge as it turns 100 this year.

In the spring, the Cape Elizabeth Home will likely be forced to raise tenants’ rents in an effort to balance an already tight budget with minimal outside funding. 

Still subsisting from an initial endowment and the interest that has been accruing ever since, the nonprofit facility receives no state subsidies or supplemental funds, except for occasional grants, administrator Millie Giesecke said.

Rent for the nine current residents is $1,280 per month.

But the cost of living only continues to rise. In the case of the Cape Elizabeth Home, because it is neither assisted living nor a nursing home, its avenues for possible supplemental funding are few and far between, except for private, isolated donations. 

That makes for a tough situation, Giesecke said. In an effort to refrain from dipping into the endowment too much, rent for future residents will likely spike in the spring to $1,500 – the highest it has ever been. 

“We have no choice, no choice at all,” Giesecke said of being forced to raise the rent.

Grant money has helped with renovation and additives in the past: a wheelchair ramp, freezer, and furnace have all been repaired or replaced as a result of donations.

Years ago, Giesecke said, “we thought about making it assisted living.” However, the regulations and mandates that come with operating an assisted living facility seemed unappealing and counterintuitive to the home’s history.

Lasting memorial

Plans for the home were officially incorporated in 1893, after Irene M. Higgins secured a parcel of land at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets in what was then Cape Elizabeth. 

Higgins, who died in 1901, bequeathed nearly $11,000 of her inheritance for the purposes of constructing and maintaining the home as a philanthropic memorial to her parents, Jonah and Elizabeth Dyer. 

Construction of the facility was completed in 1914.

A transcript from a board meeting in June 1914, written by board President Fred P. Murray, described the location: “This splendid building occupies an ideal location for the purpose intended. The lot is large and spacious, the ground is high … the building is so placed on the lot that each side is exposed to the sun during a part of the day.”

The home was also on the South Portland Heights streetcar line, which allowed residents easy access to Portland. 

When the home officially opened in the spring of 1915, only those older than 60 who had resided in Cape Elizabeth for at least 10 years were admitted as residents. There was room for between seven and 11 residents; today, there is room for 10. 

The home officially became co-ed decades later, yet even before it opened, the board allowed exceptions: “The Association, through its Board of Managers, may receive not only aged women, but aged married couples; so that an aged married woman need not be separated from her husband but both may go to the Home together,” according to the June 1914 transcript.

Up until the late 1980s, the system of payment varied from resident to resident, according to Giesecke.

When people chose to live in the home, they were required to hand over their savings and material possessions. This transaction, no matter the amount, guaranteed them a place to live, one meal a day, and during the first few decades, infirmary access, until they died. The cost of burial was also covered.

Each resident’s “Balance on Hand,” as it is referred to in past records, varied from multiple thousands of dollars to a couple hundred. 

When Giesecke became an administrator at the home in 1987, she recalled two women living at the home who were still under the original system of payment. 

Independent boarding

Giesecke said she doesn’t like using the term “elderly housing” to describe the home’s function; she thinks it’s too subjective. Instead, she refers to the facility as an independent boarding home.

Unlike other homes that cater to people over 60, the Cape Elizabeth Home is distinct because of its size. By offering only nine rooms (two of which can fit two people), it really is like a large, family home.

Aside from providing three meals a day, the staff are relatively hands-off: “We provide food, companionship and laundry services,” Giesecke said. “We provide a homey atmosphere, but we can’t take care of people.”

The age of current residents ranges from 68 to 93.

Joan Lewis, 93, recently moved into the suite on the first floor from her home in South Portland. Still spry and holding a driver’s license, Lewis said she goes birding with a group of friends in the warmer months and enjoys indoor activities like puzzles during the colder months.

Lewis, who was one of the first docents at the Portland Museum of Art, is also the unofficial caretaker of Lord Byron, a cat who lives in the home.

Lewis, typical of several of residents, said she was attracted to the small size of the home and the fact that she could get to know each of her neighbors.

“The people are very friendly here,” Lewis said. “I like the atmosphere.” 

And despite incremental rent increases over the years, “people absolutely find it affordable,” Giesecke said. “I hope $1,500 will still work.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Sidebar Elements

Joan Lewis, 93, is the oldest resident at the Cape Elizabeth Home in South Portland, which is celebrating it’s 100th year of operation. Lewis is a native of Montreal, who still owns a house in South Portland, where she lived for most of her adult life.

The Cape Elizabeth Home was incorporated in 1893 by Irene M. Higgins and officially opened for residents in 1915. The retirement home at Sawyer and Ocean streets in South Portland, will be forced to raise its rents in the spring. 

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.