GR Vets' Home Is Unique Nationally

September 3, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — With 758 beds, the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans (GRHV) is by far the largest nursing facility in the state of Michigan.

Not only that, but the 70-acre, 118-year-old facility on North Monroe Avenue ranks as the nation’s third largest veteran’s home and the leader within the United States and its territories in days of care and number of veterans.

The GRHV is unique in both its immense size and the population it serves.

With 494 state employees and 116 contracted employees, the GRHV is able to serve 618 members in need of skilled nursing care, with onsite staff of four full-time physicians and clinical services that include dental, internist, podiatry, urology, ophthalmology, surgery and plastic surgery, as well as three full-time pharmacists and physical, occupational and speech therapists.

“We have a huge advantage because our population is so large,” said Frank Snarski, GRHV commandant. “We are able to offer those specialty clinics on site. They (specialists) come here — and they don’t have to; they do it out of the goodness of their own hearts — and we have the staff to help them.”

The remainder of the beds is assisted living for ambulatory residents who do not require 24-hour care. These members function independently, with some having automobiles and working full- or part-time jobs, and others attending classes through local educational programs.

Available to all members is a range of activities that is without equal in other publicly funded or operated homes. On the grounds, GRHV has a wooded area, a fishing pond formed by Lamberton Creek, and a picnic area, and offers the amenities of the adjacent Riverside Park. Within the facility there is an arts and crafts workshop, a clubhouse and a bowling alley.

“What nursing home has a bowling alley?” Snarski said. “They knock each other over to get down there and bowl.”

GRHV also has a small fleet of vehicles that provides transportation to over 50 offsite activities a month.

Many of those advantages are needed to overcome the challenges found within an elder population of this size, and especially within the unique population of GRHV.

“First of all they are veterans,” Snarski said. “They have expectations that we have to meet or exceed. The other thing is gender; if we have 670 males and the rest are female, that requires different care than if you were taking care of a primarily female population or a more equal population of the two.”

With its veteran population, the needs of its members are changing along with GRHV’s population.

At press time, the home had 376 men and 13 women who were involved in WWII, and among the remainder are veterans of the Cold, Korean and Vietnam wars, with a handful from the Gulf War.

While the aging baby boomer population is generating new opportunities for senior care, the slow disappearance of the generation that preceded the baby boomers is changing life at the GRHV.

“The youngest person who could have fought in WWII, even if they lied about their age, would be something like 78 right now,” Snarski said. “They are all right up there. We’ve been 100 percent full and on a waiting list the (six years) I’ve been here, and what you’re seeing is that while the number of veterans in the state of Michigan is going down, the need for long-term care is going up.”

In the past months, GRHV has added three nursing beds.

“There are so many people looking to get in,” Snarski said. “There is always a waiting list. We needed to increase to better serve the veteran community.”

With WWII veterans passing away nationally at an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 a day, it will only be a matter of years before the GRHV is populated primarily by veterans of Vietnam and Korea.

More so than their WWII counterparts, Vietnam and Korean veterans many times suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. As that group ages, the GRHV has adapted to those needs.

Other special needs populations are found within a trio of secure wards — two Alzheimer’s units and one for patients diagnosed with both psychiatric and medical ailments. The staff-to-patient ratio of those units exceeds the standards set forth by the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987.

The greatest asset that the GRHV has to combat the many challenges of elder care lies not within its facilities, however, but with its loyal volunteer base.

Civilian and veteran service organizations donate over 60,000 volunteer hours a year, fueling many of the activities on which the GRHV prides itself.

“They are caring for our American heroes,” Snarski said. “They’re all very motivated. They recognize the sacrifices that our veterans made by donating time and money.

“I’m sure other nursing homes have people volunteer and people donate,” Snarski added,  “but I don’t think it is anything like what you see here.”

The GRHV operates on a $42.7 million budget, accrued in equal parts from members, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and the state of Michigan.

Eligible veterans receive a VA stipend of $57.78 a day for care. After that the state and members split the remaining $3,160 a month. The portion the members pay depends on an individual assessment, with assets of up to $25,000 exempted in addition to the family homestead. The state picks up the balance of the monthly bill, and the entirety once a member’s assets have fallen to $25,000.

The GRHV is often mistaken for a VA hospital, but that’s not the case.

The facility is entirely state-run and is by definition a nursing home rather than a hospital. There is a VA clinic on the adjoining grounds.

Also adjacent to the GRHV grounds is the cemetery. Visible from I-96 just east of the U.S. 131 interchange, the cemetery is home to 214 Civil War veterans and hundreds of veterans from every U.S. military conflict since then.    

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