SEPTEMBER 6, 2018 – For the last 36 years, Betsy Mullen has played a major role in the growth and expansion of Chelsea Jewish Lifecare (CJL). She has worked with thousands of residents and their families, and is known for her kindness and empathy. Betsy began her career as a nurse in the Boston area; today she is chief operating officer of Chelsea Jewish. A resident of Byfield, Betsy has two grown sons, Andrew and Jason, and two grandchildren.
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Tell us about your upbringing. What was it like growing up in Charlestown? Also tell us about your parents – what kind of work did they do?
I grew up in Charlestown with my parents, two sisters, and one brother. We were an extremely close-knit family. Charlestown is very much your “typical” small town. It’s only about one square mile, but had three Catholic parishes! Our life largely revolved around family and the parish community. My mother was a stay-at-home mom – as were most of the mothers I knew at that time. It was definitely a full-time job taking care of the four of us! My dad was such a hardworking man, often working two jobs to support us. His priority was our education and to make sure we went to good schools. He was an electrician but continued his education, while supporting his family, by attending Wentworth Institute of Technology for HVAC. He was a self-made man and a tremendous role model for me. One of his favorite sayings was, ‘You can be whatever you want to be.’ His work ethic set a wonderful example for his children and grandchildren.
As a child, did you always feel the need to help others?
I did. Being the oldest, I was a caretaker from a very young age, often babysitting my three siblings as well as others in the neighborhood. My best friend, who I have known for over 60 years, is also a nurse, and we planned activities and adventures for the younger neighborhood children.
When did you realize you wanted to become a nurse?
After I got over wanting to be a nun! That was a common goal for many of us in grammar school, but eventually I decided that nursing was my true calling.
You came to the Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home in 1982. Was that your first experience working closely with Jews and the Jewish community?
Yes! Although some of my friends in college were Jewish, I had little exposure to the Jewish religion and culture. It became very important to me to learn as much as I could about the religion and traditions. I knew it was essential to the culture of Chelsea Jewish, our residents, and our families.
Over the years, you’ve become involved with the healthcare of probably thousands of patients. How has this experience of getting to know so many seniors impacted your life?
I have always felt that life is all about relationships. Working with seniors in the healthcare field has made it only too clear how important it is to offer kindness, compassion, and high-quality care in the last years/days of their lives. I always share with staff what I learned in my early days at Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home … residents, no matter what their age, come to a nursing home not to die, but to live until they die. There is a lot of living that takes place in any of our buildings. Meaningful life is important regardless of how old you are. At CJL, we strive to provide a ‘real’ home and meaningful life to all of our residents.
What have you learned from the residents at Chelsea Jewish?
Relationships are so important, as is active listening. Listening to the wisdom offered by these wise elders as well as our younger residents living with ALS and MS simply makes you a better person. They have stressed basic things that we all know, but do not always act on. No matter how long you have someone in your life, it is never enough time. Savor the time with them now. Make every day count and make a difference in someone’s life every day.
At this point you know more about kashrut [kosher law] and the Jewish holidays than many secular Jews. Do you have a favorite Jewish/kosher food and holiday, and if you do, which ones, and why?
Many of the residents living with us have been steeped in their own holiday traditions, celebrating with families and friends, sharing special holiday foods. We celebrate all of the Jewish holidays in our skilled nursing facilities and our assisted livings, including preparing and serving the traditional foods and holding services. This is core to the CJL culture. I enjoy them all. Many non-Jewish residents come to CJL to receive the highest quality of care and life and join the Seders or attend the holiday services. There is a wonderful community spirit that bonds us together. Our Purim celebrations are amazing! As for favorite Jewish foods, I love cream cheese and lox on bagels, our famous brisket, tzimmes, kugel, and, since I am a sweet eater, the hamantaschen at Purim.
You’ve been involved in so many innovative programs at Chelsea Jewish Lifecare (CJL). Could you talk about those projects?
Two of our very early culture change initiatives were our “Gentle Awakenings Program” and food choices at meals. Residents woke up when they wanted, chose what they wanted for breakfast each day, and watched it prepared as they sat in the dining room, as opposed to a traditional nursing home model where residents were often woken up at as early as 5 or 6 a.m., and brought to the dining room and given trays. We have kitchens in our six legacy Green House homes at Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home and the nine homes at the Brudnick Center for Living [in Peabody] replicating the model and kitchens in every home in the Leonard Florence Center for Living, the country’s first urban model Green House skilled nursing facility.
Our European Day Spa, first implemented at Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home and then at the Leonard Florence Center, won the innovation of the year award as did our vacation program for residents. Our first overnight trip, which I will never forget, was the Copley Plaza in Boston; from there we ventured to Cape Cod, Maine, Atlantic City, Disney World, and even a Disney cruise. We have been particularly excited to take our residents living with ALS and MS to Disney World.
Barry and Betsy’s, our company store, is yet another innovative program for our employees, who are among CJL’s most valued assets. Every week, they are able to shop for healthy products such as meat, fish, fresh produce, dairy products, and dry goods. There is no cost to the employees. Additionally, we also instituted an employee vacation program where those who have been with us for more than five years enjoy an all-expense paid trip to either Disney or Las Vegas with their families.
The Leonard Florence Center was the epitome of cultural change, and a high point in my career, providing a home for elders and disabled individuals living with ALS and MS. Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home, most dear to my heart as I spent 27 years of my career there, is a place unlike any other. Last year the residence underwent a dramatic $16 million renovation to become the first legacy Green House. Organizations throughout the world are seeking to replicate this model of care. We embody the principle shared by Maya Angelou. We did the best we could and when we knew better, we did better. Today with Adam Berman as president, CJL continues to search for innovative ways to serve our residents, to grow our vision, and to serve as a model to other mission-driven organizations.
Are you surprised that you spent so much time in your life dedicated to taking care of elderly Jews?
When I came to Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home in 1982 to work with Barry Berman, the CEO of CJL, I never dreamed that I would be here almost 37 years later as part of Chelsea Jewish Lifecare. The years have flown by. I have been afforded tremendous opportunities to grow professionally and take on many different roles at all of our entities and to work with some amazing individuals. Not everyone gets that chance. In words by Maya Angelou – one of my favorite writers: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” It continues to be a rich and rewarding endeavor.
What has been the most rewarding part of your job?
To have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, each and every day.
What do the elderly in nursing homes want the most at that stage in their life?
Kindness, caring, someone to be there and listen. They want meaningful relationships – just like we do.