Chelsea Soldiers’ Home was founded in 1882 to take care of veterans living in almshouses across the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Since that time, the organization has evolved into two components: the long term care center, a nursing home serving 180 veterans, and its domiciliary area, which has a census of slightly less than 295 independent living men and women between the ages of 21 and 97.
Michael Resca, commandant, said one of the greatest challenges in dealing with such a varied age group is ensuring the needs of all veterans are served to the fullest extent. “We’re finding the younger generation has different issues than what we’ve previously experienced,” he said. “I guess you could say we’re on a learning curve.”
A recent census showed that approximately 20% of Chelsea Soldiers’ Home’s population consists of veterans from the Korean conflict and WWII. On the other end of the spectrum are veterans of the most recent conflicts, including wars in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Between 21% and 22% of the organization’s population includes this younger generation; the remaining 60% of soldiers at the organization are veterans of the Vietnam era.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs-regulated organization, under the direction of Ann Sullivan, director of residential services, and Deb Antonelli, director of nursing, has implemented new programs to balance this issue. Service offerings include end-of-life and long term care for older veterans as well as help for younger veterans transitioning back into civilian life or dealing with substance abuse.
“On our dormitory side, under Ann’s clinical direction, we have implemented an assisted living area for medication administration and minor treatment and assessment issues,” Antonelli said. “If our patients need end-of-life care services, they’re transferred into our long term care center.”
Chelsea Soldiers’ Home’s long term care center, the Lawrence F. Quigley Memorial Hospital, is one of the best in the nation. It recently became Joint Commission accredited and is one of only a few nursing homes to receive a five-star rating from CMS.
In addition to being able to diagnose Alzheimer’s and dementia, clinicians are trained to diagnose and handle veterans dealing with PTSD. The hospital handles special care dementia patients and has secured units for wanderers.
Chelsea Soldiers’ Home has a small area on its long term care side for veterans who may have gone to an acute care facility and had outside psychiatric admission or treatment at a VA facility. The organization’s staff can assess the patient in a bed with 24-hour nursing and clinician oversight to help them develop a plan for a safe return to the residential side of the organization.
“We’re a big campus, and we have multiple buildings,” Antonelli said. “We want to make sure the room we’ve placed a veteran in is conducive to our ability to monitor him/her even though it’s independent living. We want to make sure we’re allowing for their independence while monitoring to make sure they’re safe.”
Although Chelsea Soldiers’ Home is a standalone organization, without strategic partnerships across and with the commonwealth, it would not survive. Five years ago, in partnership with the University of Massachusetts Boston, the organization developed Veterans Outward Bound, helping veterans take the next steps in their education, whether it’s a GED, an associates degree, or a couple of classes to prepare for getting a bachelor’s degree.
Chelsea Soldiers’ Home built a computer lab for patients who are in the program and shuttles participants to night classes to make it easier to fit the program into their lives. Since starting the program, 80 veterans have gone through Veterans Outward Bound, and some have returned to Chelsea Soldiers’ Home after completing their schooling.
“A nurse who works for me is a former student from Veterans Outward Bound services,” said Antonelli. “We’ve had a number of successes with the program.”
In the past couple of years, the organization embarked on an $11 million project to install new HVAC and fire suppression systems into the Lawrence F. Quigley Memorial Hospital, which had no air conditioning since it was built in the 1950s. The hospital is also in the final stages of receiving photovoltaics on its roof.
The $11 million project price tag was not the original figure, however. Original estimates priced the project at $3 million. Thanks to the support of the commonwealth and the VA, Chelsea Soldiers’ Home has balanced the inflated price.
“Any major construction project is reimbursed by the VA at a rate of 65%,” said Resca. “The commonwealth of Massachusetts fronted the money, and upon completion of the project, the VA will reimburse it $.65 on the dollar.”
Resca said Massachusetts and the Patrick administration leads the nation in showing its support and appreciation for those who have worn the uniform of their country, not only at Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, but also at its sister facility in Holyoke. Under Chapter 115 Veterans’ Benefits, the commonwealth outlines both veterans’ and dependents’ benefits. “To my knowledge, it’s the only such program in the country,” he said. “The commonwealth does more than its fair share of supporting our work.”
In addition, Chelsea Soldiers’ Home is working with the Bridges program, which focuses on veterans at risk for homelessness. Staff from the organization’s residential and healthcare teams oversees psychiatric and medical care of residents in collaboration with the VA.
“We want residents, as they progress and move, to live in our domiciliary,” said Sullivan. “Veterans are traditionally a non-compliant group, and that’s when they run into trouble and end up homeless. We’ve had great success with this program.”
The organization is also working with MHICM, mental health intensive case management, to be able to accept more complicated psychiatric cases. “The veterans are case managed by our soldiers’ homes, social work and substance abuse staff, outpatient psychiatric staff, and the VA mental health programs,” Sullivan continued. “Without the help of these organizations, we wouldn’t be able to reach the populations we do.”
The level of dedication Resca, who has been at the organization for 10 years, Sullivan, who has been there for 25 years, and Antonelli, who has been there for 29 years, show to the soldiers they care for is not unique in comparison to others who work at Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. Although the pay rates aren’t as competitive as some other healthcare institutions, the level of care and commitment the nursing staff provides the veterans is something none of the three have seen outside this organization’s walls.
“We have almost an obligation to take care of the population that has made us free,” said Antonelli. “That might sound corny, but that’s the theory of my clinical staff.”
“I took a job in the private sector for about a year,” said Sullivan. “There was a lot of money, but I wasn’t happy a day in the job. So I came back and haven’t left since.”
Although he’s not part of the clinical staff, Resca echoed similar sentiments in explaining what makes Chelsea Soldiers’ Home so special. “It’s not about the staff,” he said. “The veterans themselves make us what we are. They are addictive. They get under your skin, and they make coming to work each day worthwhile.”