My mother-in-law has been at a nearby nursing home for about three years now. Sure, it’s very expensive ($331 per day) but she’s getting great 24/7 care. The staff’s very professional and allows her to maintain her dignity. Unlike when she was living alone, she now has a great social life with field trips to restaurants, museums, stores, gambling casinos — and her favorite libation served during a monthly “happy hour.”
Nursing homes are a fairly recent idea. For millennia, when someone became frail he or she would have to move in with the kids, live on the charity of others or die all alone. In 18th century Nutfield, there was the venue system in which the town auctioned off the infirm elderly, disabled and the poor to the lowest bidder. Later, the town owned a poor farm where the indigent, elderly and insane were expected to work for their room and board. In the mid-19th century, Derry began to send their poor and feeble to the county farm in Brentwood. Being driven “over the hill to the poor farm” was viewed as a humiliating experience which everyone dreaded.
In 1912, the selectmen of Derry were informed that the town was mentioned in the will of Miss Lucretia A. Hopkins (1824-1911) of Reading, Mass. She, her sister and two brothers had been summer residents of Derry for years. Lucretia outlived her siblings and was survived only by nephews and nieces. In her will, she left to the town $1,000 and her summer home at 4 Thornton St. to establish “a home for aged women.” For the next couple of years, the town rented out the Thornton Street property and added the rent money to the bequest.
The Town Meeting in March 1914 voted to accept the bequest and soon a board of trustees was appointed consisting of two men and three women. Its chairman was Leonard Pillsbury, the do-gooder in Derry. Also on the board was Miss Hopkins’ nephew Arthur Greenough and Annie Shepard, the grandmother of the astronaut. The idea of an old ladies home proved popular with locals and soon donations of furniture, linens and kitchen utensils converted the house into a convalescent/assisted living home. A bequest of $20,000 by Margaret Berry of Windham was later added to the endowment.
The trustees next had the task of writing by-laws and regulation for the home. The daily running of the home was placed under the charge of a matron with the directive that, “order, neatness and good conduct must prevail in every part of the establishment.” Matron was to be present at every meal and keep inventory of everything belonging to the home. She was not to be a tyrant, instead “by her kindness, attention and judicious treatment, endeavor to gain the esteem and secure the comfort and happiness of those under her care.”
To be admitted to the Hopkins Home, the lady had to be at least 60 years old and a resident of Derry or from a surrounding town. She must be of “good character” and able to care for herself. The lady must lack sufficient money to take care of her needs and had no family or friends who were “able or liable to maintain” her. Upon entry, “the inmate” had to give the home $500 and the deed to any real estate she should own. She also had to surrender to the home anything that she would inherit or be given after moving into the home.
The Hopkins Home was intended to be their residence for the rest of their lives. As they became more enfeebled, their meals would be brought to their bedrooms. The more able-bodied inmates were expected to care — as best they could — for the others who could not clean or feed themselves. All medical bills were paid by the home. Local doctors would make house calls there and if they had to go to a hospital, their room would be waiting for them upon their discharge. Nursing was done by the matron or the other residents. They were a family and family members took care of each other. I’ve been told that each lady was also expected to bring with them one clean, decent dress in which they can be “laid out” at their funeral.
In 1931, trustees decided they needed more space and moved to the 14-room house at 12 Crescent St., which is just to the south of the Central Congregational Church. This home on Piety Hill could take up to eight ladies, with each being given their own private bedroom. Each year, the home held an open house and the residents always eagerly showed off the building’s spic-and-span facilities. This was the ladies’ home and they were proud of it.
After World War II, other nursing home began to spring up all over; these charged a per-diem fee and the ladies didn’t have to surrender everything they owned. Now, as one lady died at the Hopkins Home, there was no new lady to move in and occupy her bedroom. The last resident was 85-year-old Caroline How, who died on June 1, 1954. With her passing the Hopkins Home was closed and sold. The money realized from the sale of the property was added to its trust accounts and was given to the Derry Visiting Nurse Association.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.