Now that we’re re-acquainted, time to progress

Normally, we don’t associate country music hits with the care of our elderly residents, but the words of last year’s Oregon Jamboree headliner Dierks Bentley’s hit “What Was I Thinking?” came to mind when the news broke about Samaritan Health Service’s plans to shutter its Wiley Creek assisted living facility.

That’s just one question. There were plenty of others.

The good news, though, is that we don’t have to worry about answers to many of those because Samaritan “got it right,” as one local resident put it after Samaritan officials realized their error and did a 180-degree reversal.

As our story beginning on page 1 reports, it’s been a long and tumultuous week since our last edition of The New Era, which was literally hot off the press when this Wiley Creek thing came to light.

But Samaritan executives saw the light on this. They realized that Wiley Creek is valued by not just the dozens of families in our community who have relatives there – but by many others.

Before we say anything else, we want to credit them with making a courageous and a correct choice. Anything else was simply wrong – for Sweet Home and for Samaritan.

It became pretty obvious to them that when Sweet Home residents really care about something, they take action. We’ve seen it many times before, though perhaps not on this scale.

There’s no question that the initial plan was incredibly insensitive to the needs of the 44 mostly frail, elderly residents and their families, many of whom have lived in Sweet Home for generations.

In trying to make sense of this, we remember that Samaritan has been very preoccupied with big enterprises elsewhere – particularly in Lebanon, where it has built a medical school facility, a hotel and conference center, a beautiful garden to go with those, a fitness center and medical complex, and a veterans home, not to mention all those apartments. They’re also building – or planning to do so – in Corvallis and north Albany.

Samaritan’s single senior residential center in its three-county spread is Wiley Creek, not only a bit off the radar in terms of the organization’s focus, but also geographically way out there on the periphery.

It’s not hard to see that, with many of those who were present when Wiley Creek was founded in 1997 out of the picture, executives newer to the scene may not have gotten the picture.

We could fume about why it appeared Sweet Home was taking the short end of the stick, whether it was really what outraged citizens suggested: a blatant attempt to stick it to Sweet Home one more time by locating a drug rehab facility here at the expense of Wiley Creek?

Those who don’t live here often do not understand this community because we are unique. But we know who we are.

We have a community center because local residents stepped up to get it done when that need became obvious.

We have a well-endowed center serving adults with developmental disabilities, again, built by us.

Local young people are getting scholarships from citizens who see the need for higher education and who have amassed an increasingly significant endowment to do so.

We have a country music festival that is one of the oldest in Oregon – and still one of the best, the result of local determination and resilience.

We have a brand new artificial turf field in our community stadium – bought, built and paid for by local residents while larger, more highly regarded communities are still working to get theirs paid off.

The local response to the Wiley Creek decision is just one more evidence of what Sweet Home is all about. It was pretty apparent last week that Samaritan is figuring that out.

Yes, we struggle with poverty and associated ills, to a great extent due to factors beyond the community’s control.

Yes, Sweet Home’s residents have been a little slow to seize the opportunities presented by the natural resources around us in fields other than timber production. Yes, we’re the community that still suffers the reputation of being the destination to which state prison officials long sent released convicts – because there were jobs here.

Yes, our downtown area has blight.

It’s understandable why the response from many Sweet Home residents had a “here we go, again” tinge to it last week as they pondered Samaritan’s closure announcement.

But it’s time to put all that behind us.

What’s before us is a much more positive picture than what we would have been writing about in this editorial a week ago. And we’re thankful for that.

What’s good about this is we think they now have not only a greater understanding of what Sweet Home is all about, but they know we want to ensure that Wiley Creek – and possibly a local substance abuse treatment center – are successful.

That’s important, because Sweet Home needs to step up to make sure Wiley Creek is healthy. Clearly, there have been some latent problems with the profit margins – or lack thereof – at Wiley Creek. While we haven’t seen the numbers, let’s just accept what they say: Wiley Creek is in the red.

There clearly has been a disconnect between the Sweet Home community, which greatly values the presence of Wiley Creek and its residents, and Samaritan, for whom it is a single senior living community rather far removed from the executive offices and all that building going on elsewhere.

In our archives, we came across an article about the opening of Wiley Creek, on Jan. 5, 1998.

It quoted then-Samaritan Health Services CEO Alan Yordy as stating that the Mid-Valley Healthcare board recognized four key factors in establishing Wiley Creek. Three are of particular interest now, and we quote directly:

– “Seniors should be able to stay close to home when they are ready for a senior living facility;”

– “Services should be part of a seamless contour of healthcare, all working together;” and

– “A strong belief in Sweet Home.”

The article, written by then-publisher Alex Paul, quoted Yordy as saying that the $6 million investment in the community shores up the belief there is a “bright future” for Sweet Home.

What we heard from Samaritan folks on Saturday reflects substantially more commitment to Yordy’s promises made nearly 20 years ago than what they said earlier in the week.

As we move forward, Sweet Home needs to take a more active role in Wiley Creek’s future. Retired Judge Bill Lewis, who chairs the Sweet Home Senior Center board, put it succinctly when he told Samaritan executives during Thursday evening’s meeting, “We need you, but you need us.”

We need to take Samaritan up on what local attorney Rachel Kittson-Maqatish, quoted in our story, referred to as an “extended hand of partnership.”

What that actually entails will, obviously, be up to Samaritan.

But it’s reasonable to think that an advisory committee or board of local citizens, both individuals who have relatives living in the facility and some who do not, would make a lot of sense. Samaritan could profit from such a group, both from an advisory standpoint and in terms of problem-solving. If Wiley Creek is in the red, it makes a lot of sense to engage some of those people who showed up at those meetings and who lambasted Samaritan on social media to help solve the problems.

Regarding the proposal to establish a substance abuse rehab center in Sweet Home, now that it isn’t going to replace Wiley Creek, we agree with those who supported the idea at Saturday morning’s meeting.

Such a facility would certainly bring some welcomed jobs to the community and possibly could provide other benefits for local citizens, as Wiley Creek certainly has, communication and connection with Sweet Home will be doubly important.

We certainly aren’t happy that elderly and infirm residents of the facility and the dedicated staff members there had to go through all of what happened. But unpleasant circumstances sometimes can produce unexpected benefits and this certainly could be the case in this Wiley Creek near-fiasco.

To be blunt, it appears both sides kind of forgot about Wiley Creek, kind of started taking it for granted. That was a mistake, as the massive public outcry last week demonstrated.

How to stop it from happening again?

Honest communication, reaffirmation of the basics of Samaritan’s value statement of “excellence, respect, service, integrity, stewardship, compassion and leadership,” and intelligent, proactive brainstorming and collaboration would be a good start.