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Never easy, end is near for Lutheran Home

Longtime colleagues, left to right, Kelsey Molberg, Kim Neumann and Sara Schutz are suddenly having to contemplate a career move after working many years at The Lutheran Home campus in River Falls. With the nursing home set to close in three weeks, dozens of other staffers are in the same position. (River Falls Journal photo by Phil Pfuehler)

RIVER FALLS -- For many at The Lutheran Home, going to work every day at 640 N. Main St. in River Falls has felt like going to a second home — like a home-away-from-home atmosphere.

That makes what comes next bitter. The nursing home campus is shutting down. A closing date is weeks away.

Certified Nursing Assistant Kim Neumann started working at The Lutheran Home more than 22 years ago. She was only 24.

She brought her kids — an infant and a toddler — with her because in those days The Lutheran Home also had a daycare center.

Neumann said the shocking December announcement that The Lutheran Home would close for good still has her emotional.

"I feel so comfortable working here and I love my people — the residents, their families, our staff," she said. "This isn't easy to go through."

Neumann, who lives in River Falls, is looking to find a new job, preferably nearby, in the assisted living field. Maybe at a facility like Comforts of Home, which has sites in River Falls and Hudson.

"It seems like nursing homes are phasing out," she said. "Assisted living is where the action is."

Registered nurse Kelsey Molberg, Ellsworth, who also fills in as nursing director, has worked at The Lutheran Home since the end of high school.

She's had a busy last year — giving birth, buying a home, and, now, after 10 years, having to look for new work. The Lutheran Home's been her only job.

"My comfort zone is here," she said. "You can't beat the family-like setting we all feel."

Molberg would have been happy to keep working for a long time at The Lutheran Home. The closure, however, has forced her to reevaluate the direction of her career.

"I have no choice," she said. "I would like to keep my short commute, but I may look into health care/acute care for something more fast-paced and challenging."

While Molberg loves the daily routine and familiarity with residents at The Lutheran Home, she says a change might be good for her "personal growth."

She's applied for one position and has an interest in working in a clinic or hospital setting, maybe in River Falls or Hudson.

Sara Schutz, nursing staff coordinator and health information manager, has worked for almost 19 years at The Lutheran Home. She lives close to Ellsworth.

Schutz says it feels odd to look for work — not only because she's been at the local nursing home for so long — but also because "we're not done here yet."

She really likes her dual position of health records/CNA.

"I enjoy the variety. This is what my dream job is," says Schutz, who's applied for a few positions and even been called about her availability by a health care center in Minnesota.

Neumann said she'll never forget the working camaraderie at The Lutheran Home: "We rely on each other," she said.

She adds that interacting with residents each day is a joy as well as "being treated as family" by the family members of those residents.

Molberg said the outside of The Lutheran Home may "look like a rundown building, but what goes on inside is a very high level of warmth and's very comfortable in a good way."

Molberg said when she comes to work, everyone's asking about her baby.

"You know what to expect, the questions, everything," she said. "For so long it's been like a second home for me...going to work is like coming home to a husband and children.

"I can't imagine driving by and not being here anymore. I would volunteer here if I didn't work here."

Neumann and Schutz take pride in helping Lutheran Home residents get placed to other facilities. They are encouraged to embrace these transitioning roles by The Lutheran Home management.

They ride along with a resident and family members to check out another facility. There, they provide insights into what the residents' needs are to the facility's caregivers.

"When families want us along, it shows a trust in us and with our level of care," Neumann said. "And we feel relieved that a person we've gotten close to will have a good new place to be taken care of again."

As the closing countdown goes on, Molberg said the dwindling number of residents is noticeable.

"I don't know if reality about the closing has hit yet, but with fewer people here, if feels somber, quieter — there are certainly fewer calls lighting up, asking for our help," she said.

While emotional about the closing, Neumann said she's fine — until doing an interview like this — "where I have to start talking about it."

She also said she can't help thinking about it more as the closing date nears.

"It's tiring to keep thinking about it," Neumann said. "The goodbyes on the last day will be hard."

Schutz said she's motivated to stay to the end because of the remaining nursing home residents.

"I come to work for them," she said. "I'm more concerned for how they end up and for the staff than I am for myself."

Molberg said one of her peeves in the long term care field is high patient-to-staff ratios. This means a lack of time to give each resident, and that shortcoming frustrates her.

With fewer residents now at The Lutheran Home, Molberg, Neumann and Schutz said it's been refreshing to have "more one-on-one time" with them.

"We've been trying to keep everything as normal as possible," Neumann said. "It eases their worries about the transition."

Since nursing home residents are older, they have more ailments and illnesses and need hospice care.

The three employees agreed that one of the hardest aspects of their work is handling death — being present for "someone's last breath."

Often there are attachments, friendships, that develop between employees and residents. Yet employees must remain professional, even when their "friends" decline or become gravely ill.

Neumann said it took her awhile to get used "to the passing away" of a resident, but she added that doesn't mean she acts cold or aloof.

"We all grieve with the other family members when someone dies," she said. "You have to be strong and consoling, but it's OK to cry together."

The nursing home's Executive Director Spencer Beard said the winding down of the local facility, which opened in 1974, has been smooth.

"By the beginning of February we will only have 25 percent of our residents left from when we started," he said. "The process is going very well — organized, timely, good communication with government entities, residents and families.

"We have many residents who have used this situation to move closer to family or move to an assisted living setting instead of another skilled nursing home."

Beard added that local Lutheran Home's closure is symptomatic of a larger problem and cause for concern.

"We as a community really need to be worried about what this skilled nursing home closure means," he said. "There will be fewer places to receive the care you may need now or in the future.

"It means that our state is not focusing funds on our seniors who have worked their entire lives and deserve to be cared for in their last journey of life."

The Lutheran Home facility's tentative closing date is Feb. 23.