Port facility has evolved into much more than just a traditional nursing home
The senior care landscape has changed dramatically in the 50 years since Heritage Nursing Home first opened its doors in Port Washington.
At the time, Heritage and Lasata Nursing Home in Cedarburg were the only licensed skill-nursing facilities in Ozaukee County.
Today, both facilities have changed their names to better reflect their missions, and senior residential facilities have opened in virtually every community in the county.
Heritage Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, 1119 N. Wisconsin St., is now a 74-bed skilled-nursing care facility that serves the elderly in need of long-term residential care as well as residents of virtually any age who need short-term rehabilitation care.
The building has wings for long-term and short-term residents, but the staff goes out of its way to create programs and activities that draw both populations together.
Heritage at first had a staff of 20 full-time and 20 part-time employees, but has grown to an around-the-clock workforce of about 100.
The staff is supported by a regular corps of more than 40 volunteers, many from area churches who help residents maintain their spiritual connections.
Young faces are also common at Heritage, thanks to partnerships with Workforce 2020, Concordia University Wisconsin and Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Clients from Portal Inc. and students from Port Washington area schools are also frequent visitors, especially around the holiday season.
To get a better idea of how much the field has changed, a 1966 brochure touting the opening of Heritage noted it was anticipated the facility “will qualify for any nursing home benefits included in the Medicare Bill recently adopted by the U.S. Congress.”
Medicare has become one of the financial engines that allow Heritage and most other senior facilities to survive.
That same brochure cited rates that today appear astoundingly low — $13 a day for skilled nursing care in a double room or $12 a day for a ward bed.
The original 50-bed Heritage was owned by attorney Virgil W. Kalchthaler, who entered into a long-term lease for the property with fellow attorney Carl Gerold.
The original management team included business manager Gertrude Bouvia, nursing supervisor Margaret Hildebrand and dietary supervisor Joseph Mias.
In the early days, most of the referrals to Heritage came from the staff at St. Alphonsus Hospital, also in Port Washington.
Angela Willms, Heritage’s executive director, said nursing homes were seen as the only choice for senior care when the facility opened.
“Today there are a lot more choices, such as assisted-living facilities and in-home care that didn’t exist then,” Willms said.
Government regulations have also dramatically changed how skilled nursing care is provided. Statistics show senior facilities are the third-most regulated business in the country — trailing only nuclear power plants and air traffic controls.
A recent analysis commissioned by the Wisconsin Health Care Association and prepared by NorthStar Economics shows that Heritage has annual expenditures of $5.4 million, and has an economic impact on the community of more than $12.6 million.
Nobody remains on the facility’s staff from its earliest days, but Fern Penkwitz comes close — having had various jobs at Heritage for more than 40 years.
When she started working there, Penkwitz also taught during the day at Port Washington High School.
“It was a pretty tight-knit staff. There used to be three of us girls working on the wing all of the time,” Penkwitz said.
“We became very close, because most of us were from town and knew each other.”
Even after four decades on the job, Penkwitz said, there is one thing that makes all of the work worthwhile.
“It is the residents. You have to remember you are there to do a job, but it is hard not to get close,” she said.
“I remember one resident who was in her 90s who we had to our house several times. When she died, her son said, ‘Everything she had, she wanted you to have.’ That’s how close we had become. You really do feel like family.”
Virtually every staff member has something that makes working at Heritage feel especially rewarding to them.
“For me, it has to be the stories the residents have and listening as they reminisce,” said Melanie Kaster, Heritage’s life enrichment director.
Kaster coordinates the Music and Memory program at the facility, and said she cherishes seeing dementia patients become animated when favorite old songs are played on headphones connected to an iPod Shuffle.
Amy Luft, Heritage’s director of market development, said she most treasures the life lessons she has gained from being around the residents.
“None of our residents expected to be here. You learn your life can change instantly,” Luft said.
“Talking with our residents every day, it has taught me not to take things for granted — to live a more intentional life.”
Heritage will host a 50th anniversary celebration from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan 28.
The event will be highlighted by a special presentation by Port Washington Mayor Tom Mlada at 4:30 p.m.
For more information, contact Amy Luft at 284-5892.
Photo Credit: REVIEWING SCRAPBOOKS COMPILED over the 50 years Heritage Nursing & Rehabilitation Center has been in business in Port Washington were (top photo, from left) Fern Penkwitz, Melanie Kaster, Amy Luft and Angela Willms. The books sat atop a quilt created by residents at the center about a decade ago.
Photos by Mark Jaeger