Logo of "the vicarage by the sea" celebrating its 25th anniversary, featuring an illustration of two people standing at an open door looking out to the sea, symbolizing support for individuals living with dementia.

‘We’ve done it’ says Vicarage by the Sea founder

By Laurie Christman
Originally published by The Coastal Journal, Midcoast Retirement Living, March 28, 2002

HARPSWELL- Ronald Regan’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease has increased awareness of the toll this disease takes on patients and their families. Reagan’s family has chosen to take care of him at home, but they have support and resources that many Brunswick area families do not have. Most families don’t want to put their loved ones in an institutional nursing home when it becomes too much to handle, but there are few other options locally for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

The Vicarage by the Sea, opened in May 1998, is one such option. The Vicarage is a local adult care home that specializes in long term care for elders with dementia. A former bed and breakfast, owner Johanna Wigg converted the business after her mother’s death. Wigg, a sociologist with a specialty in social gerontology, had worked with the mentally ill as well as the mentally retarded, and cared for her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Wigg bought her late mother’s house and converted it from the bed and breakfst to a care home.

“We are different from anything in the area in that we are a home environment and we specialize in care for elders with dementia. Ninety percent of our population has some type of dementia. The residents that are currently residing here with dementia would be in, most likely,…some type of institutional, locked-door facility in the area, as opposed to a homelike setting.”

Although stricly private pay, Wigg still manages to provide high-quality carea nd charges half (approximately $100 a day) of what most other nursing homes charge. Many of her residents are non-mobile and are in various stages of dementia, and need help with basic everyday activities most of us take for granted.  “The difference between The Vicarage and say local boarding care homes is we’re long-term care. We will care ’til the end…..while boarding care homes will go to a certain level and then expect people to move on, we don’t. We’ve never kicked anybody out based on care level,” said Wigg. “In contrast on the other end, we’re not a nursing home because we don’t have 24-hour nursing care. We work with people’s physicians, and we have a nurse practitioner from Doctor Kruger’s office who comes and visits us, she makes house calls, it’s great. She’s very good with this population.  So we function more like how you would in your family if somebody were ill.”

The Vicarage is bright and sunny with lots of windows and skylights, and has two living areas where residents can view television or read. The rooms are spacious and most have bathrooms.  Cheryl Golek, the House Manager, has two children that also live at the Vicarage and interact daily with the residents.  There are also animals, both dogs and cats. “The animals are a tremendous source of companionship, as well as responsibility and attention,” said Wigg. “They’re very therapeutic.  We’re a facility or home that allows people to come in with their pets if they have pets.” Residents and staff eat both breakfast and supper together each day, prepared by the staff. The Vicarage functions very much like a family home, only with 24-hour support and care for residents.

Jean Ann Calderwood, whose mother is a resident, says “I can’t say enough good about the place.  It’s wonderful.  It’s absolutely wonderful.  Mother was with me for 3 1/2 years. You know, I thought that’s where she wanted to be.  And I was taking wonderful care of her…She wasn’t happy…the time I spend with her now is quality time…This place is great, she loves it.”

In the summer there are outings in the van to Fat Boys or picnics in the park. There are also rides in the boat for those interested and Wigg occasionally pulls lobsters from Curtis Cove for the residents. At Christmas, they go on a shopping trip to the Mall in Portland and have catered a Christmas Party with a band that also provides a great time for families to come and meet each other.

Wigg took the philosophy of The Vicarage from William Thomas, M.D., who created a philosophy called The Eden Alternative at an institutional nursing home in upstate New York. He created an Eden-like environment by bringing in birds for the residents to care for, painting the institution bright colors and attaching a day-care center to create a multi-generational engagement. “They had a nursing home dog, and some rabbits and gardens that people could tend to and be with the land…He determined that, in fact, medication levels had dropped and people were living longer,” said Wigg. “I took his philosophy and applied it here, and I don’t work nearly as hard at creating the changes that they have to work at in these institutions.”

Originally five beds, the Vicarage expanded to eight beds by converting a small home up the hill to a two-bed facility where two residents stay at night with staff and converting a garage into an additional room.  Though others have begged her to expand further, Wigg feels that her vision for The Vicarage has been realized. “My intention was never to create a model and reproduce it myself; but instead to create a model that others, if they choose, could in fact reproduce. And we’ve done it.”