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SARATOGA -- Laughter filled the crowded dining room inside the Saratoga Care Center on a recent July afternoon.

Residents and families seated at a dozen round tables clapped and sang along to a live guitar and fiddle trio led by Teense Willford, a regular performer at the nursing home.

The smell of barbecue filled the air as the staff laid out a spread of hot dogs and burgers, watermelon, carrot cake and more on a red and white checkered tablecloth.

This was the cookout residents and families were supposed to be enjoying two months ago at the beginning of the summer. That was before the nursing home’s parent company, Utah-based Deseret Health Group, announced in May that financial troubles were forcing it to close. Then came unpaid wages, a stop on medicine and food and, finally, a hasty evacuation of most of the facility’s 27 residents.

The Saratoga nursing home, along with a similar one in Rock Springs that was also owned by Deseret, faced closure before separate companies took over each facility. Washington-based EmpRes Healthcare is managing the Rock Springs nursing home. Health Management Services of Montana assumed control of the Saratoga facility in June.

Now, some of the residents are trickling back in the doors, workers are being paid and the process to once again become a fully functioning nursing home, though slow, is underway in both towns.

The long-delayed barbecue was the celebration of a new start. The mood was brighter than it has been in a long time, and staff reported being less stressed, said Anita Mills, the nursing home administrator.

There were more tangible changes, too. A new cook was about to start, and Carbon County residents were once again touring the facility with the idea of bringing loved ones there.

EmpRes plans to renovate the Rock Springs nursing home, according to administrator Melissa Elliott. For now, small touches like new curtains, front lawn landscaping and new trim have helped provide proof to families that change is coming.

“We’ve had people say it doesn’t even look like the same place,” Elliott said.

Work remains

But there is still work to be done.

Rock Springs has half the residents it did before Deseret abandoned the facility. EmpRes can accept Medicaid and private insurance but is still waiting for a survey and approval from the state before accepting Medicare. That also means the facility can’t provide therapy services yet.

The Saratoga Care Center is also working on Medicare approval, which limits the number of people it can serve. Right now, the facility has only 16 residents. That’s not enough to pay the bills.

While some residents have returned after being moved to other nursing homes as far away as Cheyenne and Casper, others couldn't face the stress of another move and decided to stay.

One former resident now living in Cheyenne has a new boyfriend.

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“Maybe I’ll have to convince him instead,” Mills joked.

Coming home

Elaine Burge returned. When closure appeared imminent, no one told her much about what was happening, she said. Staff just helped her pack and told her she was going to Laramie. She left on Mother’s Day.

“I lost it. I totally cried, then she cried next,” said Cheri Butterfield, Burge’s daughter.

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Long work days meant Butterfield could make fewer visits after the move.

Pat Rust cried, too. She was one of the few who stayed at the nursing home through the ordeal.

“It felt empty,” Rust said.

Sam Kelly, a thin World War II veteran with snow-white hair, agreed. He has many friends among those residents who haven’t returned. He was prepared to leave, too. His son helped arrange a stay in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Kelly put down a deposit before the situation changed, and he was able to stay.

Kelly still hasn’t received the deposit back.

“Things are a heck of a lot better now,” Kelly said. “It was bad for employees, bad for residents and bad for businesses of Saratoga.”

Kelly sat at a table outside with four other men under a cloud-darkened sky. Nurses brought out food for each of them, stopping to trade banter. Soon, the musical trio made their way outside.

Willford broke into "Red River Valley," an old folk tune. He stamped his foot to the rhythm and stuck his tongue out as he sang. As the notes faded, he turned to Kelly and asked for a request. He already knew what the answer would be.

It was the first song Willford played for him when he arrived in Saratoga nearly two years ago. Kelly’s bright blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he sang along.

So shine on,

Shine on harvest moon...

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Follow reporter Tom Dixon on Twitter @DixonTrib.

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