Schenectady’s Heritage Home for Women going strong at 150

Strong sense of community among the 36 residents at the Schenectady home
Two sweeping staircases leading to the upper floors at Heritage Home. Inset: Dorothy Allen.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Two sweeping staircases leading to the upper floors at Heritage Home. Inset: Dorothy Allen.

Dorothy Allen’s new home is full of smiles. 

“You can’t help but feel comfortable because everybody smiles. You wake up in the morning and what you’re greeted with is a smile. . . The staff hum and you don’t hum unless you’re happy,” Allen said. 

The 99-year-old Albany-native moved into the Heritage Home for Women less than a year ago and said she’s been blown away by how happy people are there. Not only the residents but the staff too.

“I think these people are hand-picked,” Allen said. 

But director Jane Schramm said that she’s just as blown away by Allen. On her first day there, Allen asked Schramm what other residents needed. Schramm told her not to worry about it and told her to just settle in. But Allen wouldn’t hear of it. Finally, Schramm gave in telling her who might be in need. 

Allen immediately got to work and hasn’t stopped since. The teacher of over three decades organizes and teaches crafts every month. She’s got them planned out just like lesson plans. She’s also a prolific writer and reader, with a special interest in history. Allen volunteered as a docent for several years at the Shaker Heritage Society and can tell countless stories about the Shaker lifestyle. 

Her disposition and interest in history fit in well with the Heritage Home, which turned 150 this year. 

“This type of a facility, for older adults, it’s not the norm,” Schramm said, “We’re kind of an outlier.” 

Indeed, when the Home was founded, it was the only one of its kind. At that time, it was located at 237 Green Street and known as “The Home of the Friendless.” It was founded by The Ladies Benevolent Society and headed by Urania Nott, the wife of the Union College president at the time. The Home took in anyone who was in need.

According to their register, the first resident was actually a woman with a baby who needed a place to stay. 

Over the years, it developed into a home for the elderly, especially those of modest incomes and were struggling to find housing. By 1905, the organization outgrew the building on Green Street and moved into 1519 Union Street. The name was changed to “Old Ladies Home,” and a Mrs.  J.W. Smitley donated $25,000 to assist with the new building. 

“The building is 113 years old and [it] was built specifically for the Home,” Schramm said. 

The Classic Revival style building provides housing for 36 women, aged 71 to 101. Each resident has her own room. A formal foyer, with heavy wood and glass-paned doors, greets visitors. They open up into a sitting room, with two sweeping staircases leading up to the upper floors.  

A few years ago, management embarked on a major refurbishment project, creating a decor council and flower council and getting the residents involved in making pattern and color choices. 

“It ended up being a full-blown project of redoing all of the common areas in the entire building, all the hallways . . . the bathrooms, the living rooms, etc.,” Schramm said.

They installed way-finding carpeting, meaning each floor is a different color. They updated the lighting to be more suitable for people with vision problems. 

Because the bulk of the work took place over several months, Schramm said the Heritage Home told residents they could be temporarily relocated to another adult care facility and Heritage would subsidize it. 

“Nobody wanted to [move],” Schramm said, “In fact, they got to know the folks from the company that were doing the work because they were here for months,” Schramm said.

Throughout the project, the construction crew members and the residents got to know each other on a first name basis and during their breaks, the crew would talk with the residents. 

“They were sad when [the crew] left,” Schramm said. 

Even though the bulk of the updates have been completed, there are still a few projects that they’re always working on.  

“It’s been a work in progress,” Schramm said. 

But they’re always careful to keep the building’s history. 

“Our entire board, our residents, everybody wanted to keep the original charm of the building,” Schramm said, “We have all this beautiful woodwork and nobody wanted to make it modern. We wanted to keep its old-world elegance but bring it forward so that it’s more timeless.” 

That’s not to say that they don’t have modern technology. 

“Our activity staff had been asking if we would get an Alexa because our residents really enjoy music and trivia,” Schramm said.

They got one not too long ago because it’s simple to learn how to use and it allows the residents to not have to ask for assistance to play music or to look up certain tidbits for trivia. It’s one of the many activities that residents do. 

“They enjoy the casino, going to local apple orchards, going to Central Park to see the roses, going to Jumping Jacks,” Schramm said. 

Residents like Dorothy Allen are a big part of creating activities, and the activities coordinator keeps resident’s schedules busy. It also builds a stronger community. 

“It’s very family oriented here. We really get to know our residents because it’s 36 people. That’s not too insurmountable. We really care about the residents, many of them live here for many, many years,” Schramm said. 

Residents eat just about every meal together, in a formal dining room where they are served by a staff who carefully keeps track of who can eat what. Every once in a while, a resident will try and pull the wool over their eyes and get an extra piece of a sugary dessert, a piece of bacon, or something with gluten that they shouldn’t have.

But the staff has a color-coded system so they can put a gentle stop too it.

“They look out for one another and they form their own . . . for lack of a better way to put it, a sub-community,” Schramm said, “If somebody is not coming down to a meal, because they all come down and eat in our dining room, they’ll go look for them.”

Beyond their outings and activities, some resident’s favorite days are when the hair stylists come.  

In the last few years, the Heritage Home opened a hair salon on the third floor. The room looks like a classic salon, with a small tub for washing hair, the hairdryer chair, and a large vanity. A hairdresser comes two or three days a week to trim and style their hair. 

“This is a hot spot,” Schramm said, “They’re lined up out here.” 

The hair salon brings the residents together, as does the craft classes taught by Dorothy Allen. At 99, she’s still writing lesson plans for each class. One month, they découpaged fabric onto glass jars. 

“My mother was a sewer and, being Scottish, you don’t throw things away so I had a drawer full of material. [It’s] down to a half now,” Allen said. 

She’ll be teaching other residents how to make Christmas trees in December and snowmen in January, using recycled materials that she brought to the Heritage Home and that she’s collected there. 

“She’s always saying ‘I need to help people because so many people need more help than I do,’” Schramm said.

She’s also representative of many amazing women who have lived there, Schramm said. 

“We had another woman who [has since passed]. When she was 92 she was doing yoga in her room. I remember staff walking in and she was doing a headstand,” Schramm said. 

Heritage Home has also seen veterans from the Women’s Army Corps as well as teachers like Allen. Coming up on her one year anniversary there, Heritage Home feels cheerier than ever.  

“I never saw so many smiles and so many laughs,” Allen said. 

Categories: Life and Arts, Saratoga County

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