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Helen Porter’s Neil Gruber retires

MIDDLEBURY — After more than three decades of improving quality of life for senior citizens throughout the region, Neil Gruber is suspending his career to provide some much-needed TLC on the home front.
Gruber, 61, has resigned his post as top administrator of Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center (HPHRC) in order to spend more time with his wife, Joanne, who is battling what he called a “life-limiting illness.”
“We can’t put more time on the clock,” Gruber said of the priorities one must establish given the fragility and temporal nature of one’s existence.
The clock on Gruber’s career in senior care began back in 1980, when he became administrator of Bennington Health and Rehabilitation Center. He would also serve stints with the Vermont Veterans’ Home and Wake Robin long-term care home before becoming administrator of Helen Porter in 1997.
He recalled taking the helm of what was then a conventional, 118-bed nursing home that was full virtually all the time. But changes within the senior care industry would soon stem the facility’s client flow. The state of Vermont began placing a premium on giving elders the support services they needed to remain in their homes much longer. And Middlebury would soon become home to two large retirement communities that have proven popular in attracting seniors from both within and outside of Addison County.
“Like most nursing homes, we provided the ordinary, long-term care services,” Gruber recalled. “We began facing an occupancy challenge.”
So Gruber, his staff and board of directors began doing some strategic planning to diversify services and transform Helen Porter into something much more than a mere nursing home. Under the new name of Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, the facility scaled back its rooms to 105 and began offering short-term, rehabilitative stays for patients working to transition back into their homes. Helen Porter has a staff of 175 full- and part-time workers.
“In any year, we probably treat three times as many patients as we did in the old nursing home, because so many people come and go,” Gruber said. “We are discharging on average 15-20 people per month who have had short stays.”
The organization established a 36-bed unit for patients suffering from memory-loss ailments, an offering that has since grown to 50 beds. Porter has also joined forces with Addison Respite Care Home to provide some hospice suites dedicated to patients receiving end-of-life care.
Gruber was also pleased to see HPHRC become one of the first facilities of its kind in Vermont to convert to electronic records management, something it did “on time and on budget.”
But HPHRC wasn’t always about numbers and strategic planning during Gruber’s tenure; it was also about having fun. For example, Helen Porter now has a major summer event each year that integrates the residents, their families, staff and the greater community into engrossing recreational activities.
“It’s helped create an environment for the residents and community that is very special,” Gruber said.
It’s an environment that has earned national exposure, thanks in part to a recently released book by local author Sue Halpern titled, “A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher.” The book imparts some of the experiences that Halpern and her 10-year-old Labradoodle Pransky have enjoyed as a dog therapy team at HPHRC. A crew from NBC’s “Today Show” came to Middlebury to shoot a segment at Helen Porter featuring Halpern, Pransky and HPHRC residents.
“It created a lot of buzz,” Gruber said of the light Halpern’s book has shone on HPHRC.
Gruber is pleased to leave HPHRC in good health, though he noted the persistent challenges facing elder care. Vermont’s and the nation’s shift to universal access to health care and the dwindling federal funding for Medicaid programs are among the issues with which hospitals and nursing homes will have to contend.
“I think the level of complexity of the level of the care people are provided with continues to increase,” he said. “I think people in leadership roles in nursing homes will need a very strong clinical background — and that wasn’t my strength. I was a social worker when I started. People who are nurses and therapists … will be important in leadership roles in nursing homes in the future because of the complex care we are going to.”
Gruber added nursing homes are receiving patients much quicker than they used to due to coverage limitations of insurance companies.
“They don’t want you staying in an expensive hospital,” he said.
Nursing home management is an arena that Gruber might eventually revisit, but for now he is giving his full attention to Joanne, making sure she gets to her doctor’s appointments and treatments — and of course taking time to have some fun.
“This will give us some time to do some things we might not otherwise do,” Gruber said. “We’re planning a trip to visit her brother in Idaho; we see him too seldom. We are excited about spending some quality time with him.”
Being removed from the job has allowed him to look back upon it with a new appreciation of the elder care industry and its clients. Gruber developed a respect and affinity for seniors as a young child who lived next door to his grandmother.
“It wasn’t a good day, all the way through high school, if I didn’t see my grandmother every day.”
Seniors, he said, don’t always get their due in today’s society — at least compared to in the Far East and other cultures.
Porter Medical Center officials said they’re sorry to see Gruber leave, but they understand his reasoning. Jim Darragh, assistant administrator at HPHRC, will serve as interim leader during the next two months until a new leader is selected. A search is currently under way, according to Ron Hallman, PMC’s vice president for development and public relations.
“The significant contributions made by Neil Gruber to our organization during his tenure as the administrator of Helen Porter are many and have truly strengthened and enhanced our mission of providing quality and compassionate care for our residents,” said Porter Medical Center President James L. Daily. “Neil and his team introduced many innovative programs under the banner of Culture Change which have fundamentally transformed how we deliver services and ensure that Helen Porter truly feels like ‘home’ for the people we serve at HPHRC.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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