BURRILLVILLE – Jennifer Thompson was only 15-years-old the day she started a new job at a nursing home on Rock Avenue, and she still remembers the date: November 17, 1973.
At the time, the position in both housekeeping and the dietary department at Overlook Nursing Home would replace a babysitting gig where she made a quarter per child. Her new pay was set at $1.45 an hour.
Thompson, who has worked in the facility’s kitchen since that day some 49 years ago, served her final meal to residents on Friday, April 22. As colleagues celebrated the longtime staff member with pizza, cake balloons and flowers, Thompson reflected on how much has changed in her five decades of service.
“I used to go right from school to work,” she told NRI NOW. “My aunt pulled me in because they were short-staffed.”
At the time, the nursing center was a completely different facility from the two-story 100 bed structure now known as Overlook Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. The nursing care center was founded by Harold & Lillian Kenoian in a massive residential property purchased in 1957, known affectionately as “The mansion.”
In the kitchen, “We made everything from scratch,” Thompson said, recalling a homemade eggnog once prepared with unpasteurized eggs. “Everything was much more hands-on.”
For Thompson, the job was also a family affair. In addition to the aunt who first brought her on board, Thompson’s sisters and mother all worked at Overlook.
Smoking was allowed in the building – and common among both nurses and patients – and Thompson recalled one time a resident accidentally lit one room’s curtains on fire.
The modern building housing Overlook was built in the 1970s, and the mansion was demolished.
“It was kind of piece-mealed,” Thompson recalled. “It was built in stages.”
Remnants, including photos of the old digs, and incorporated elements such as the mansion’s original stained glass windows, can still be found throughout the nursing center.
Describing herself as “a true Burrillvillian,” the registered dietician noted she has lived in the same area of town her whole life. She said that the past few years – with a pandemic that has affected everything from staff shortages and lockdowns, to recent disruptions in the supply chain and rising food costs – have been tough ones.
“In the years I worked here, I have never seen anything like this,” she said of the near universal staffing shortages, noting that for her, unlike many of today’s youth, work was never optional. “You learned to take on your responsibilities, whether you wanted to or not. It was those basic, simple values.”
She said she’ll miss the small, nice moments of the job, like bonding with patients and being able to give them a favorite meal, or the occasional extra cookie. But unlike the days when her job consisted of cooking up healthy and creative entrees, or brewing up a new batch of eggnog, she notes that modern mandates make much of the kitchen work about, “paper compliance.”
“Times have changed,” she said. “It’s the little things that you miss.”
Thompson notes she didn’t think she’d end up retiring before mask mandates ended in Rhode Island’s healthcare facilities. And she remembers a time when the state provided some funding to feed patients.
“It’s just funny. You look back at all of the years and all of the things that have happened,” she said. “It’s been a long, long time.”
“I love my job. I love what I do,” Thompson said. “I’ll miss the people and some of the residents, but not the 6 a.m. phone calls.”
Starting next week, Thompson said she’s looking forward to days that consist of gardening, and trips to the park or out for ice cream with her grandson.
“I haven’t had a summer off since I was 15,” she said.