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Life on a Merry-Go-Round



Bob Capazzo

                                                                                                                   
Some refer to it as the Mews, other call it the Merry-Go-Round, and there are all too many who, even if they have heard of it by either name, don’t have a clue of what it is or even where it is. Yet it is a unique Greenwich institution and important town asset that over the years has made life more livable and enjoyable for many hundreds of our senior citizens.

Located at the corner of Arch Street and Bolling Place across from the post office, the red brick, four-story building is home to  as many as eighty-eight senior citizens.

The Mews can best be described as a residential hotel where older single people of modest means can lead a safe, dignified and independent life in the heart of downtown Greenwich. While the Mews offers limited assisted living facilities, its emphasis is on independence. Residents are free to come and go, to walk the Avenue, to shop and dine out or go to the movies. Each has their own front-door key for the occasions when they come back late.

Yet there’s plenty for them to do in the Mews itself, and participation in social activities is encouraged. The public areas  are attractively furnished, the dining room serves three meals a
day with no pre-assigned schedule for seating, and the atmosphere is that of a family hotel rather than an institution.

The founder of the Mews was Nan Rockefeller, wife of Stillman Rockefeller, and a lady of infinite energy, determination and humor who became a legend in her own time. The Mews grew out of a recreational center for seniors called the Merry-Go-Round, which she helped found in 1949. Staffed by volunteers who served wholesome meals to seniors, it ran on a shoestring, according to Nan’s oral history, often with only fifty cents left in the till at the end of the day. Then, so the story goes, an elderly widow living alone, burned herself badly while cooking. The germ of the idea for the Mews was planted. How many other widows or widowers, Nan wondered, were living alone in houses too large and too costly for them to handle, for whom cooking and housekeeping had become a danger and a burden, yet who still wanted to enjoy their independence as well as a social life? She conceived the Mews as a modestly priced apartment house designed specifically for these independent-minded elderly people. It would be the first of its kind in Connecticut.

After purchasing and demolishing a boarding house next door, Nan went in search of financing. Accompanied by several supporters, she went to Hartford to seek an FHA loan. The FHA had never loaned on a senior residential hotel and abruptly turned her down. Undaunted, Nan returned with a new team of supporters, was again denied and out of anger and frustration burst into tears. This exhibition apparently softened the hearts of the government officials, and she got her loan. She later said in jest that the Mews was founded on a woman’s tears.

The four decades since the founding of the Mews has witnessed a major shift in elderly demographics and lifestyles. With people living much longer and able to enjoy a healthy, active life during their retirement years, the average age of those entering assisted-living facilities nationally has risen from seventy-five to eighty-five. The corollary is a shortened length of stay and an increased turnover. Though not in the category of an assisted living facility, the Mews has experienced much the same trend. Defying the averages, however, are two Mews residents who are over one hundred years old and doing quite well, thank you.

In order to qualify for residence, an applicant must meet certain minimum requirements for independent living as certified by a physician. The Mews has a live-in nursing staff to handle most noncritical situations, but if someone requires continued nursing care, most often due to dementia, other arrangements must be made for them. The facility operates without any town, state or federal subsidy, yet the rents are fairly modest: a single room with full bath and three meals a day is $1,910 per month; two-room suites start at $3,000. Still, some residents outlive their income,
but the Mews has never turned them out. Their rent is paid with money from an annual fundraising campaign.

Nan Rockefeller died in 1994 at the age of ninety-three, but the Mews remains her legacy of service to our elderly and one more facility of which our town can be justifiably proud.

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