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Perham assisted living facility, Thomas House, closes after 20 years

Since 2002, Lisa Nelson and her fellow caregivers served 98 women in their assisted living care facility.

Lisa Nelson stands in front of The Thomas House after its closing in late January of 2022. The assisted living care facility operated for 20 years and served nearly 100 women.
Lisa Nelson stands in front of The Thomas House after its closing in late January of 2022. The assisted living care facility operated for 20 years and served nearly 100 women.
Contributed / Lisa Nelson

PERHAM — When Perham's Lisa Nelson sees a need in the community, she commits to filling it. She did just that for 20 years with The Thomas House, an assisted living care facility she opened in 2002 in her mother's old home.

Twenty years later, however, The Thomas House is no more. Nelson closed it on Jan. 20 of this year.

"I always felt there was a real need (for assisted living in Perham)," Nelson said as she reflected on her 20 years of service. "It was good to provide that need and service. We had a lot of positive feedback from families regarding the services we provided. It's kind of a feel-good job. You're supposed to help people."

Nelson first noticed the need for an assisted living facility like hers in the early 2000s, when her own mother, Joan Thomas, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Joan wanted to stay somewhere with a really homey feel, and the closest place Nelson could find to suit her mother's needs was in Fergus Falls — which she felt was too far away.

So Nelson, a student working to earn her nursing degree at the time, came up with a plan.

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In her nursing program, Nelson and the other students were required to complete a project where they would assess their community for a need and create a business plan to accommodate that need. Nelson created a business plan to fit the needs of her mother.

She asked her stepfather, who at the time lived with her mother in the house that would become The Thomas House, if she could purchase the house and open a care home, and he just asked, "When can you open?"

So Nelson followed through with her business plan. In fact, she was the only student in the class to do so, and her professor even visited the facility.

Prior to opening, when Nelson put an ad in the paper searching for staff, she had over 70 applicants. She hired some caregivers, and opened The Thomas House, which could house about 6–8 women at a time. There was staff available 24/7, with two caregivers who worked morning through night and one who worked overnight. They had a resident-to-caregiver ratio of 4:1, and Nelson loved watching her vision blossom into reality.

"I thought it was super nice that the residents were never in their rooms," Nelson recalled. "They were always out in the living room or den, sitting and watching TV just like a person in their normal home… It was really good."

IMG_20220425_102034450.jpg
Lisa Nelson stands in front of The Thomas House when it first opened in 2002, ready to provide needed care for her community.
From the Thursday, June 13, 2002, Perham Enterprise-Bulletin

Nelson made sure to keep The Thomas House's services as home-like as possible for all its 20 years. When "the ladies" — as Nelson called the residents — would wake up in the morning, they could order whatever they wanted for breakfast. They could do what they'd like throughout the days, eat lunch and dinner together, go for walks together, listen to music, and even do typical household tasks like laundry and dishes if they wished.

Nelson's dedication to keeping The Thomas House homey is, in the end, one of the reasons she decided to close. With increasing regulations, she felt as though the rules were turning the house into more of a facility, which isn't what she wanted. In addition, the current caregiver shortage made it difficult to find staff to keep The Thomas House running. Nelson herself is also 63 years old, and she was ready to retire.

In early January, Nelson brought everyone together and told them it was time to close. At the time, there were only five residents, and Nelson said all of them were able to find new places that they and their families were happy with. Due to the caregiver shortage, employees also found new placements right away. Very quickly after making the announcement, the house was closed.

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"Everybody was taken care of," Nelson said. "Staff and residents were all good."

Throughout the years, The Thomas House served 98 total residents.

Nelson is this week holding a sale of old items at The Thomas House, located at 701 Third Avenue S.W. in Perham, on April 29–30 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fliers listing the items for sale can be picked up outside the house.

"I'd like to acknowledge two people that worked with me at The Thomas House from the day it opened until the day it closed," Nelson said. "They are Audrey Adamczyk and Kimberly Guck… I want to thank all the families that allowed The Thomas House caregivers to care for their loved ones over the years."

Nelson continued, "I also want to thank the caregivers at Thomas House over the past 20 years. As one family member stated, 'The work they do is the work of angels — hard-working angels.'"

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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