On Thursday night, there was an air of familiarity to what likely was the last Christmas party at the Jefferson County Home for the Aged, also known as Whispering Pines, 1240 Coffeen St.
Santa was on hand to distribute brightly wrapped packages to the 47 residents who filled the room. Stockings and bows adorned the walls and figurines and snow globes sat on the artificial snow stuffed in each windowsill.
Whispering Pines staff and volunteers from the North Side Improvement League called out names of gift recipients; their voices were soon drowned out by the ripping of wrapping paper and the excited chatter of residents examining their newly opened presents.
This is probably one of the last parties because well be closing, but we do this every year, said nursing assistant Joan E. Wilder. We have several parties.
North Side Improvement League President Brenda L. Parker said the organization likely will not host parties at Samaritan Summit Village when the facility opens next year.
Its just too big and there will be too many residents, she said.
After presents were opened, Kim M. Greene, activities director and 22-year veteran of Whispering Pines, led residents in an impromptu rendition of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.
Ms. Greene said residents like to arrive for the party promptly at 6 p.m. and depart just as promptly 45 minutes later.
Everyone agreed the new Samaritan facility would be good for the residents, but the transition has left county employees of the nursing home in a difficult position.
The new facility ought to be beautiful, said Timothy M. Glover, who played Santa Claus. The hard part is the people who work here.
Its still unknown if the 15 full-time county employees at Whispering Pines will have jobs next year.
Theyre waiting to see whats going on with the county. We dont know, Mrs. Wilder said.
The employees are looking to stay within county government, which provides benefits based on classifications and seniority and is part of the state retirement system. They would be unlikely to find a similar benefits plan in the private sector, which would have significant effects on their retirement plans.
Whispering Pines is expected to close early next year. The county has been engaged with Civil Service Employees Association Local 823 to try to secure opportunities for the facilitys full-time staff members.
The county Legislature has been trying to close the facility for years, recognizing that the continued cost of providing care would increase greatly in the future. In August 2010, the county voted to contribute $5 million to the construction of two facilities in order to bring more skilled-nursing beds to the county so it could get out of the business.
That $5 million investment, in addition to a $30 million grant from the state Department of Health, has helped bring 168 skilled-nursing beds and 120 assisted-living beds to Samaritan Summit Village in Watertown, and 60 assisted-living beds to Meadowbrook Terrace in Carthage.
Both facilities are expected to open in early 2013 and will be managed by private health-care companies.
The state has backed away from adequately financing adult homes, said Laura C. Cerow, commissioner of the Jefferson County Department of Social Services.
It would cost the county $500,000 a year to maintain Whispering Pines, Mrs. Cerow said.
Its not really about the money, she said. Its about moving this service to an entity that is better equipped to provide it.
Mrs. Cerow said this holiday season is going to be an emotional one for Whispering Pines staff members who have become attached to residents.
Mrs. Wilder, who worked for the county for 27 years before retiring and returning to work part time, said, We love em, you know? Theyre good people. Some of them have nobody.