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A little bit of heaven before you get there

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A little bit of heaven before you get there
Long Hill, a senior assisted living facility in Edgartown, will close after 26 years. — Gabrielle Mannino

Like most of the Island’s hidden gems, Long Hill is tucked away at the end of an uneven, curving dirt road, overlooking the ocean. It is a senior assisted living facility, and it is a home. The rooms are lit by many windows, and the floors are comfortingly worn with the scuffle of many feet. Beyond the kitchen and into the living room, a wall of glass doors opens onto an expansive deck, where one can birdwatch and enjoy the sea breeze at this time of year. For every holiday, festive decorations are hung, and special meals and events are planned. The staff keeps the atmosphere relaxed and welcoming, and their residents comfortable and happy.

Long Hill has been Elizabeth Sandland’s project and her mission for the past 26 years. Having grown up in post–World War II England, Elizabeth was raised with a strong sense of optimism and purpose. “You have to go into everything with heart and soul — you have to have the desire to do everything to the best of your ability,” she told me over the phone. She’s brought this attitude with her around the globe, and it shows in the community she has fostered at Long Hill.

Elizabeth’s life seems rooted in service. Whether in England, the West Indies, New York, California, or the Vineyard, she hasn’t strayed from nursing, only adapted her capabilities to suit the local need. When she arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in the ’80s, with 3-year-old twin boys Jackson and Daniel in tow, work was scarce. After several years spent commuting to New York City for work each week, something had to change. Elizabeth recalled, “When the boys were about 7, they said to me, Mum, we don’t want you going off, we want you here with us,.” and she honored their request, finding work at Brookside, an elderly housing facility that was in the process of closing: “I thought that this would be a good way to stay at home and take care of my boys and work.” As Brookside closed its doors, Elizabeth’s brothers opened another.

“My brothers, who were very impressed with the way that I’d soldiered on, said, ‘We want you to find a house that is suitable for you on Martha’s Vineyard.’ I looked, and one of the first houses I saw was Long Hill. I said, ‘This would be ideal for my project.’ So we moved to Edgartown in 1992.”

Elizabeth raised her sons in the house alongside the residents, and allowed many of her staff to do the same. She recalled fondly, “I wanted it to be a different place for people to grow old — I didn’t want it to be like a nursing home. I wanted people to have their privacy and to feel as though they were living at home.” She continued, “Over the years, some of the people with a little dementia felt that they had even built the house themselves, and that we had moved in to care for them, and I used to encouraged that feeling.”

With nine or 10 residents at any given point, Long Hill has provided a final home for many Islanders over the years, including my grandmother, Gay Nelson.

I visited my grandmother at Long Hill many times over the past few years. My family and I have formed relationships with the caregivers, and shared meals with my grandmother and other residents. Over the course of the past week, as my grandmother slowly and peacefully passed away, my family members and I just about moved into Long Hill ourselves. During this terribly sad time, we were welcomed into the old house, and given beds and meals and freedom to roam the grounds when we needed a break from being by my grandmother’s bedside. It felt like being at my grandparents’ home — my family crowded around one another trading stories, singing aloud to my grandmother’s favorite musicians, and making each other laugh despite the circumstances. The only difference was, Long Hill offered the help that only trained nurses and experienced caregivers can provide. My family and I feel incredibly lucky that my grandmother was able to find her last home at Long Hill, where she was comfortable and so very well cared for.

As Elizabeth put it, “I was very lucky with the staff that was sent to me. It’s like they’re supposed to work here. They pick up this sense of mission also, and everyone becomes family. This is very, very hard work, and they need to be recognized for what they are doing.”

Nancy Nevin is one of those people. Twenty-two years ago, Nancy agreed to work at Long Hill over the winter holidays, and she’s spent most weekends and holidays caring for its residents since. Much like Elizabeth, Nancy is a caregiver through and through — only just retiring from teaching kindergarten at the Tisbury School this year. “I’ve been going from the kids to the older people for so long, I never could decide which to focus on, so I’ve always done both,” she told me, a smile in her voice.

One of the most special things about Long Hill is how each person’s experience is shaped by their condition and ability, but certainly not limited by these factors. Elizabeth and Nancy both carry fond memories of outings with residents to the Boston Pops concerts at the Tabernacle, rides on the Island Queen, and even dinner and movie nights. There was also plenty of live entertainment at Long Hill. Elizabeth told me, “I can’t stand a party without music, so we always had some form of entertainment.”

Nancy remembers her son, Willy Nevin, spending much of his childhood in the house, entertaining residents with cartwheels. For Elizabeth’s boys, Long Hill really was home. She loved watching her boys and their friends interact with residents, learning from each other and enjoying one another’s company. In their teenage years, the boys formed a rock band called Unbusted, and practiced in Long Hill’s basement. Elizabeth laughed wholeheartedly as she recalled a time when the boys were playing so passionately that even a resident very hard of hearing was nodding along with the music, her water glass shaking slightly on the table beside her. “They did try to soundproof the basement, but that wasn’t really possible,” Elizabeth chuckled, “so they would play rock music, and we were taking care of the elderly on the other side of the house. It was just one big family. The children were very at home with the elderly; it was like having a lot of grandparents.”

My favorite part of my conversation with Elizabeth was how she described her work. She told me, “It’s like I was the lightning rod, and everything was happening around me.” I was surprised by how little credit she gave herself, but that’s just the type of person she is, selfless through and through. Perhaps Misty Araujo, Nancy’s daughter and a longtime employee of Long Hill herself, said it best: “Elizabeth is always so welcoming and warm — she just wanted to help everyone. She was put on this earth to care for others, there’s no doubt about that.”

Long Hill owner Elizabeth Sandland at a party. On Sunday, residents and their families will be holding a party to celebrate Sandland’s commitment to the Island’s elderly population. — Sam Moore

Long Hill has provided a last haven for so many Islanders over the years, and now the house too is coming to the end of its time in this role. Nancy is deeply saddened by the closing, as much for her attachment to Long Hill as for the Island community losing this special place. She said, “We know that there comes a time when we have to say goodbye to the people and things that we love. And this is Long Hill’s time.” For those of us that have come into Long Hill’s orbit, it’s hard to understate the enormity of impact that this house and the community inside it have made on the quality of the life of our loved ones. It’s no question that Long Hill will be sorely missed, but first it must be properly celebrated, and everyone knows Elizabeth Sandland loves, and deserves, a great party.

All are welcome to celebrate Long Hill on June 3, from 1 to 4 pm, at Long Hill; 3 Long Hill Road, Edgartown. Nancy asks that you please bring a dish to share with the community.

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