Tim Mullaney
Tim Mullaney

In September, I wrote a column about nursing home signs that elicited six reader comments. This means, of course, that it was a blockbuster hit requiring a sequel. Well, the wait is over.

The setting this time is Goffstown, NH, where the neighbors of a nursing home fear that a proposed new sign will be a year-round eyesore and safety hazard.

The basic facts: Bel-Air Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center — a privately owned, 39-bed, for-profit facility — wants to replace its aging sign with a newer model. One with internal lighting and an LED display. But some of the residential property owners abutting Bel-Air object, saying that the internal lighting will make the sign so bright that its illumination will bleed into their homes. They also say the sign will clash with the historic, colonial aesthetic of the neighborhood.

The objectors have local ordinances on their side, kind of: Internal lighting technically is a no-go in Bel-Air’s location. However, the zoning would allow the facility to put up a huge, 65-by-16 square-foot sign that is lit by external bulbs.

Bel-Air has taken out the permit to build this gigantic sign, and administrator Robert Lenox sent an illustration of the monstrosity to the objecting neighbors. In this illustration, the sign read: “We did not want this sign, our neighbors at 22, 30 and 36 Central St. did!”

After I read the local Goffstown newspaper’s report on this, I was compelled to call up Lenox. I admit I instinctively was appalled at his antagonism to the objectors, and I expected him to be a brash, self-righteous, pugilistic type. Of course, he sounded like a perfectly reasonable person pushed to the edge by crazy neighbors and arbitrary municipal ordinances.

Now, I didn’t speak to these crazy neighbors. Perhaps they too would make their case sound perfectly reasonable (despite their claims that school buses will crash when drivers are distracted by the proposed sign’s LED display). But Lenox gave me illustrations of the various proposed signs, and I can with certainty say this: The sign that Bel-Air really wants, the one with internal lighting and the LED display, looks perfectly nice to me.

So what’s behind all the sturm und drang in Goffstown? Why, when most of Bel-Air’s neighbors have no problem with the sought-after sign, is there a cadre of such vicious opponents? I have a hare-brained theory. Let me present the evidence that led me to my idea:

Exhibit A: Bel-Air is the very picture of a “residential” facility. It occupies a house originally built in 1859, according to Lenox. It really looks like a typical home, albeit a large one with very nice landscaping.

Exhibit B: Lenox said that Bel-Air is a five-star facility that is well-respected by the community. He described how Bel-Air let people use its showers and freezers during a power outage, and he said it wants the LED display to be a community board, announcing Boy Scout food drives and school closings. He noted that many neighbors have testified to the zoning commission on Bel-Air’s behalf, saying that the objectors need to “stop being anti-business.”

So here’s my pet idea. I think that Bel-Air’s residential appearance and the services it has provided to the community make it difficult for some of its neighbors and municipal leaders to think of it as a business like any other, one that is trying to turn a profit and needs to update signage that has not been changed for more than two decades. A business that is more concerned with effective advertising than looking like all the other colonial-style houses nearby.

Lenox himself didn’t encourage my theory. He thought that even if the building were a more institutional-looking facility, the neighbors still would object to the new sign. And, really, what do I know — there may be many buried tensions and small-town intrigues playing out in this conflict. But I think my idea is worth entertaining, especially in light of recent comments made by the leader of one of the nation’s largest long-term care providers, Brookdale Senior Living.

Almost all the marketing of nursing homes and other facilities up to this point has been on the hyper-local level, Brookdale CEO T. Andrew Smith said in a recent investor presentation. It’s been all about promoting the assisted living on the corner. Brand equity has been in particular facilities, not so much in the larger companies operating them.

Through an initiative launched last spring, Brookdale wants to change this. The company is marketing itself as a national brand, with ambitions to be top-of-mind for everyone who hears “senior services.” There will be details about this in the January print issue of McKnight’s. But the point is, Smith wants us all to think “Brookdale” when we hear “senior living,” just as we think “McDonald’s” when someone says “fast food.” And what’s synonymous with McDonald’s but the Golden Arches, those internally illuminated signs scattered across the globe?   

Maybe the future that Brookdale envisions would be good for senior services by, say, bringing more uniform quality to the sector. However, I’m kind of depressed by the move away from the local. Perhaps that’s just sentimentality.

But I don’t think this is sentimentality, even if it is a little warm and fuzzy: The great thing about a great nursing home is that it’s not a business like any other. It’s a home for residents, perhaps a second home for their grandchildren, a community gathering place, sometimes a literal shelter from the storm. 

Yet, even if a nursing home is not a business like any other, it is a business, and communities forget this at their peril. I think that may have happened, to a limited extent, in this Minnesota town that recently lost its nursing home. And I think that when a nursing home blends into a residential neighborhood, it’s even easier to forget that the value it contributes to the community is reliant on meeting bottom-line objectives. Maybe the people opposing Bel-Air’s sign aren’t particularly anti-business, they just resist seeing Bel-Air as a business at all.

So if Goffstown values Bel-Air, and isn’t yet ready for long-term care to be defined by figurative or literal Brookdale signs lighting up the night sky with their internal illumination, I think the town should embrace the LED display in all its glory.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m craving a Big Mac.

Tim Mullaney is a McKnight’s staff writer. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.