Ten years ago, when Eleanor Steger said goodbye to her longtime home in Riverside, her daughter Joyce Jordan captured her in a photograph, standing by the door, looking bravely to the future. Not long after, Joyce took a picture of her mom, who everyone knows as “Jerry,” posing by the mailbox of her new quarters, the Parsonage Cottage assisted-care facility. And there’s no counting all the snapshots that have been taken since Jerry, ninety-six, moved next door into the Nathaniel Witherell Skilled Nursing Facility. “A town nursing home gives a sense of continuation to the elder’s life,” says Joyce. “It’s a continuum of life, of going to live and not going to die.”
In a town that offers amenities like ferry service to its island beaches, four libraries, and a top-rated public golf course, it is easy to overlook a municipal nursing home. Until, of course, you or someone in your family needs it. That’s when one truly understands how Nathaniel Witherell enriches the town, and what a blessing it has been for so many families. Indeed, 85 percent of the nursing home residents either lived in Greenwich or have family ties to the town.
In many ways, the facility is representative of the community’s values, says Chris Thurlow, president of the Friends of Nathaniel Witherell’s board of directors: “This is the Town of Greenwich’s way of saying we have a place for our elderly, and we’re going to make sure that they have as good a life as they can have, that they are as safe as they can be, and that they can be near their families and friends and the memories they have.”
Among the biggest benefits of being a town-owned facility is the stability in the staffing and as a result, the quality of care. In a business in which the median rate for job turnover is close to 50 percent, Nathaniel Witherell loses just 7 percent of its employees each year. “Our staff stay so much longer because of being a town-owned facility,” says Scott Neff, director of development for the Friends of Nathaniel Witherell. “Just the quality of the benefits in our structure is more beneficial to the employees than many privately run nursing homes.”
Such low turnover fits in well with the staff’s sense of teamwork and a system of care that has nursing assistants minding the same residents day in and day out. That allows for better familiarity with each patient, which in turn means less stress for everyone involved. It also increases the likelihood that the staff will catch slight but important changes in a patient’s health before they become bigger issues. “The care we’re providing is more like if you were staying home and had the same home caregiver coming into your place,” says Lynn Bausch, director of nursing.
Fighting For The Future
In December, the town reaffirmed its commitment to Nathaniel Witherell when the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) voted 153–28 to go forward with a $22.5-million renovation known as Project Renew. For proponents of the nursing home, that vote was long overdue. For the better part of a decade, efforts to make necessary improvements met one roadblock after another, from town officials who believed the facility should be privately run (Stamford is the only other municipality in Connecticut that operates a nursing home) to a state budget crisis that saw available funds and the support that was needed in Hartford, run dry.
Construction finally begins in September. Among the most important changes in terms of privacy, bringing the facility up to meet health-code requirements and attracting new residents will be the conversion of ten rooms, or “quads,” with four beds and just a single bathroom, into singles. A sprinkler and fire suppression system is to be installed in the eighty-year-old administration building. Heating and hot-water systems are going to be modernized, and the emergency generator will be upgraded.
The short-term rehabilitation unit, which has allowed Nathaniel Witherell to turn a profit in recent years, will be expanded, among other changes.
When the renovation is complete in January 2014, the 202-bed nursing home, which sits on twenty-four near-pastoral acres, will be an even brighter star in the town’s firmament. “There are a lot of things to get done, all within the context of the existing shell of the building,” says David Ormsby, chairman of the board of Nathaniel Witherell. “The place will be very different and, frankly, much more competitive than we are today.”
With the RTM’s approval of $20.2 million in bonding (some of the changes had already been implemented), Ormsby and company are focused on helping to cover the town’s share of the costs. With the change of governors last year, Nathaniel Witherell won a Certificate of Need from the state Department of Health for the renovation and the promise of up to $12 million in funding through an increase in the Medicaid reimbursement rate. Revenue from private-pay residents and commercial insurance, as well as Medicare for short-term rehabilitation patients, are also critical for funding Project Renew. A capital campaign to raise between $5 million to $10 million is expected to kick off later this year, with the exact date pending.
It’s an effort that the fundraisers hope residents will get behind, much like they did the campaigns on behalf of the Greenwich Library, Greenwich Hospital and the Boys and Girls Club. “The elderly matter as much as you do or I do or my children or grandchildren do,” says Chris. “They are members of our family. They are members of our community. And they deserve to share in the riches of the community.”
In many ways, it was that kind of community-mindedness that motivated Robert M. Bruce, the cotton broker, real-estate developer and philanthropist, to donate property that helped to shape the town. One of those gifts, in 1903, was the land on Parsonage Road, where the nursing home is located today. Bruce donated the expanse of land, including four buildings, for the creation of what was then called Greenwich General Hospital. Its purpose was to isolate and care for patients with contagious diseases, such as smallpox and diphtheria.
Seven years later, Rebecca Witherell, whose late husband Nathaniel had made a fortune in the mining and smelting industry, donated funds for a tuberculosis pavilion at the hospital. (Nathaniel Witherell also joined Bruce and others in starting Belle Haven, Field Point Park and other developments around town. After his death, Rebecca made a number of significant contributions to Greenwich, including the building of the YMCA.)
Although its roots go back further, the nonprofit Greenwich Hospital we know today, on Perryridge Road, opened for business in 1917. The function of the Parsonage Road facility, renamed the Municipal Hospital, handled only patients with communicable diseases. With the advent of antibiotics and more effective treatment, however, that function began to wane. As TB cases declined, for instance, the pavilion became a nurses’ residence.
In 1933, Mrs. Witherell generously paid for a forty-five-bed building at the location to treat chronic diseases. (That structure, in turn, would be expanded and eventually become the nursing home’s modern-day administration building.) Renamed the Nathaniel Witherell Hospital after World War II, the Parsonage Road site by 1955 was handling only the elderly and chronically ill, including those with mobility problems and dementia. Major expansions occurred in 1961 and 1975, and the word “hospital” was stricken from its name.
Times change, and to stay current and to keep pace with the competition, institutions must follow suit. So it was that in 2002, the push began to bring Nathaniel Witherell into the twenty-first century. A $45-million proposal to completely rebuild the nursing home was followed by a more modest plan for a $37-million renovation. Between the resistance of town officials and Connecticut’s fiscal woes, neither idea met with success. It was only after Dannell Malloy became governor last year that Nathaniel Witherell was able to persuade state and local authorities to approve the current project.
Heart & Soul
As anyone who has spent time at Nathaniel Witherell knows, however, the place is less about bricks and mortar than it is about quality of care and making its residents feel at home. It’s no coincidence that Medicare has given the facility its top-of-the-line five-star rating, a recognition bestowed on only 12 percent of nursing homes nationwide. When the debate over the nursing home’s future was raging, many asked why officials would ever want to trade a municipal nursing home that worked so well for the great unknown of some privately held entity.
Augmenting Nathaniel Witherell’s staff of some 155 full-time and 125 part-time workers are 300 volunteers, who together put in the hours of five additional staff members. Longtime volunteer Nancie Bourne, who manages the gift shop, has a catbird seat to all that goes on. She speaks of the abiding friendships that form between the staff, volunteers, residents and families. When Nancie’s sister was about to come to Nathaniel Witherell for physical therapy after a hip operation not long ago, one resident was quick to call her sister and let her know what to expect. And when a resident passes away, Nancie says, it’s common for staff and volunteers to show up at the wake or funeral.
Indeed, some might expect a nursing home to be a gloomy place, but Nancie sees it differently. “There’s laughter and fun in the halls, and giggling,” she says. “Everybody is upbeat and I think that’s important.”
Joyce Jordan, who lives in Riverside, tells of the dozens of activities available to her mother, ideal for a woman who thrives on staying involved. “My mother happens to be on the first floor, first room on the corner, because she is socially active and just loves being a part of everything,” Joyce says. “All she has to do is go out her door and there’s the world for her.”
Her mother, Jerry, likes to visit with fellow residents. She spends most afternoons chatting with her friend Helen Weisner, who for her part will often be working a puzzle. With an interfaith chapel on-site, Jerry has been able attend religious services. Joyce is full of praise for the volunteers and the recreation department, which provides more than 100 cultural and recreational programs each month. This is unique among nursing homes. (In addition, there are specific programs for residents experiencing dementia.)
Joyce tells of the well-attended ninety-fifth birthday party that the staff threw for her mom last year, complete with balloons, flowers, cupcakes and gifts. One of the staff took pictures of the festivities, and the next time Joyce came to visit she was given a photo album of the gathering. “It was just such a beautiful thing to do, certainly not something one had to do,” she says. “But that’s what I mean when I talk about going the extra mile and the love that exists there.”
Margaret Kummer, eighty-six, who has been at the nursing home for two years, says that until recently she regularly participated in group exercise sessions. She also enjoys when artists come to speak and the varied entertainment, from school choral groups to dancers. And Nathaniel Witherell is as social an environment as one wants it to be.
“I never close the door to my room, “ says Margaret. “Never. Because you see people going back and forth who want to wave, and if they want to say something they just stick their head in and say it. I love the attention, I just love it.”