If you ever meet Piper Shores’ residents, Sheila and Bruce Denny-Brown, you’ll have the good fortune of meeting a couple that has approached marriage as a true partnership, a good friendship, and an interesting adventure. One senses a deep respect for one another, a kindness, and an unbridled enthusiasm for the diversity and the possibilities of life.
Sitting together in the Great Room at Piper Shores, they are a couple in their mid-to-late 70’s that seems strong of body, mind, and spirit. Dressed in a blue plaid shirt, Bruce has just emerged from a rousing game of swimming-pool volleyball. Outfitted in a beautiful blue sweater, Sheila is a woman who regularly meditates, practices yoga, and tries to adhere to a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Getting to know them, one quickly understands that they’ve lived a life that goes beyond traditional borders.
Their Early Years
The couple’s history goes back to childhood. Their first encounter was somewhere around the time that Sheila was 8 and Bruce 11. Although they can’t exactly remember their first meeting, they do know that it was in the tiny seaside community of Hancock Point, on Frenchman Bay across from Acadia National Park.
“We saw each other over the summers,” recalls Bruce. “Our parents were friends, our younger brothers were best friends, and we were among a group of families that spent summers at Hancock Point.” However, as kids, Sheila and Bruce didn’t pay each other much attention. “it wasn’t until later, in our 20’s, that we got romantically involved,” Bruce recalls smiling.
Sheila had gone to Mount Holyoke College to earn her undergraduate degree in English and then to Bank Street College of Education for a teaching degree. Bruce graduated from Harvard College before heading to medical school at McGill University in Montreal. In the summer of 1964 the couple married in the small nondenominational chapel at Hancock Point. The next year, Sheila gave birth to their first child.
Two years later, Bruce was drafted to serve as a doctor in Vietnam. This may have been one of the turning points in their life, because after Bruce’s return from Vietnam the couple adopted a Vietnamese daughter. “I was fortunate enough to find her in an orphanage in Vietnam when she was a baby,” explains Bruce. Today, Bruce and Sheila have three children and six grandchildren (3 girls and 3 boys). Two of their grandchildren are half-Vietnamese and, in addition to their adopted daughter, a granddaughter has also been adopted from Vietnam.
In 2013, most of the family went together to Vietnam. They visited Ho Chi Minh City, boated up the Mekong Delta, went to the orphanage of their granddaughter in Danang, and spent three days on a boat on Ha Long Bay, the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands. ‘The trip was incredible,” admits Bruce. It was his first trip back to Vietnam since the war, as it was for their adopted daughter and granddaughter.
Moving full-time to Maine
After returning from Vietnam in 1968, Bruce continued his training at Boston City Hospital and went into practice in Framingham, while their growing family lived in Cambridge and Weston. But their strong childhood connection to Maine lured them back. In 1974, they pulled up their suburban roots and moved to the Bangor area, where Bruce started a practice in internal medicine. Sheila joined with several friends in starting a wholesale/retail crafts business in Penobscot called North Country Textiles.
Career was not the driving force behind their decision to move. “We were ‘Back to the Landers’,” explains Sheila, part of a generation of progressive Americans who left their suburban homes and moved to the rural countryside with a goal of growing their own food and living closer to the earth.
“We bought an abandoned farm, raised chickens and sheep, and grew most of our own vegetables,” recalls Sheila. Their year-round life in Maine took hold. The couple raised their three children in Maine and became deeply embedded in the greater Bangor and the Down East community.
Bruce’s practice was busy. Because of his subspecialty in Infectious Disease, “He was the doctor who was charged with dealing with the AIDS epidemic in Northern Maine,” notes Sheila. “At the height of the epidemic Bruce was in charge of educating hospital staff members in how to deal safely with HIV, as well as caring for AIDS patients.” In the meantime, Sheila raised the couple’s children and, with her partners, expanded their business to a store in Blue Hill.
In the late 80’s, with the children grown and away, the Denny-Browns built and moved to a new home at Hancock Point. Bruce initially continued his medical practice in Bangor, commuting weekly, but eventually moved the practice to Ellsworth before retiring in 2009.
Following the move to Hancock, Sheila became a founder and board member of the Frenchman Bay Conservancy and later joined the board of Friends in Action, a non-profit, which runs a senior center in Ellsworth. Bruce has been active in several volunteer organizations, including Friends of Acadia, as well as in driving seniors to appointments for FIA.
Eventually the couple began to realize that the rural life that was fun in their 40’s was more arduous in their 70’s. “Our house was heated by a wood stove and didn’t have a downstairs bedroom,” explains Sheila. “So we knew it was time to start looking for an another place to live.”
Deciding on Piper Shores
In a precise and thoughtful way, Bruce describes the calculated risk involved when an older person makes no plans for the future. “In order to enter a life care community like Piper Shores, you have to be healthy enough to take care of yourself when you enter. If you wait too long, you may no longer be eligible,” he warns. “We thought, ‘Why wait for things to go wrong? Let’s be proactive.’”
‘We have more than one friend who’s been faced with the difficult decision of where to go,’ explains Bruce. Family members on both sides have had varied experiences in their retirement. “We’ve seen the good and the bad. Some who did not have a plan or waited too long ended up spending unhappy and expensive years in nursing homes. “Bruce’s mother and Sheila’s aunt went into life care and were very happy, in part because they had fewer financial worries.
In the fall of 2015 Bruce and Sheila moved to Piper Shores, returning to their home in Hancock for a summer full of family. “We love Piper Shores, and we’ve made so many interesting friends here,” says Sheila. “We’re very happy with the people and programs. This is an inspiring community interested in diversity. Residents run many programs, and the people who gravitate to a nonprofit CCRC share our values.”
When the couple visited Piper Shores they unanimously agreed to apply. “We didn’t apply anywhere else,’ says Bruce. “We were impressed that this is a nonprofit with a board made up of local Maine people.” Many other retirement communities are part of for-profit chains. The couple also compared prices and found that Piper Shores was the most affordable. They describe Piper Shores as a cross between a college for adults and a beautiful waterfront hotel.
Finally, the couple says that their decision to move to Piper Shores was influenced by their love of Maine. “We’ve lived in Maine for most of our lives and didn’t want to leave,” says Sheila. “Maine is a beautiful state with a low crime rate and a population that values the preservation of its natural environment,” she explains. “Maine also has slower pace of life than many other places. People take the time to appreciate what’s here.”