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Ray Wilkens, appointed administrator at Sharon Health  Care Center, during recent early evening rounds. Photo by Debra A. Aleksinas

Wilkens prefers a personal touch as new head of Sharon Health Care Center

SHARON — Ray Wilkens looks forward to dinner time. Not to eat, but to assist with meal service and greet residents at Sharon Health Care Center (SHCC), where he was hired on April 4 as the 88-bed skilled nursing home’s newest administrator.

“I am out of the office more than I’m in it. It gives me an opportunity to go in and talk to patients and see if they have any issues or concerns,” said Wilkens, who brings 37 years of health-care experience to the Sharon facility, about 15 of which were spent in both large and small nursing centers as a Licensed Nursing Home Administrator.

Wilkens’ post at the Sharon facility brings his career full circle, he said, as he worked for the center’s operator, Athena Health Care Systems, about a decade ago. He said he is excited to be working side-by-side once again with several former Athena colleagues, including SHCC Director of Nursing Lisa Balducci.

“I can tell you it makes a difference to have a staff you know. They are my co-partners, and this is the best team I’ve ever worked with,” said Wilkens, a Southbury resident and father of two grown children and grandfather to a 1-year-old grandson.

The SHCC administrator said he intends to build trust and camaraderie among his current and future staff, and to be a resource for them. Attracting and retaining staff are priorities, he said, and SHCC will be offering a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) class in July, with a goal of hiring 10 new CNAs in the next few months.

SHCC will be footing the bill for the CNA training, on the condition that full-time candidates remain with the center for one year. “Our hope is to reach our goal by the end of July.”

In his new role, which was announced by Athena on May 10, Wilkens will be maintaining not only the business and organizational side of the nursing facility, but will also be involved on a personal level, focusing on patient care, staff development and retention and community relations.

Former paramedic

Wilkens, who also has experience as a respiratory therapist, explained that his decision to become a nursing home administrator solidified after spending 16 years as a paramedic. “Being on the ambulance crew and constantly in and out of nursing homes, I saw that they didn’t have the greatest reputation.”

The most difficult thing for many families to do is to transition a loved one into a long-term care facility, and guilt often accompanies that decision, said Wilkens. “I wanted to do whatever I could to change that” by providing excellent quality of care and making the nursing home experience a positive and collaborative one for patients and families.

‘Everybody wants
to stay home’

On a recent early evening visit, Wilkens juggled an interview with a reporter, communicated with various staff, and monitored incoming calls. He took a brief break before embarking on mealtime one-on-one patient visits to reflect on his multi-faceted role, which fuses clinical experience with a business skillset — and a hefty dose of compassion.

He also spoke of the challenges and pressure being placed on nursing homes nationwide to remain viable in the long term for the growing, fragile and aging population.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are roughly 1.4 million nursing home residents, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the number of people aged 65 and older is projected to double over the next four decades.

“Everybody wants to stay at home,” said the administrator, “but at the end of the day, people are going to need to rely on nursing homes in the future.” A major challenge, he said, will be to maintain safe and viable patient-to-staff ratios.

COVID-19 has forever changed the way long-term facilities operate. On the one hand, “The pandemic definitely strengthened our infection control procedures,” said Wilkens, who noted that SHCC currently has zero COVID-19 positive patients on campus.

On the other hand, he said, the pandemic has “scared a lot of people away” from the health-care profession. Staff shortages, burnout and illness among staff continues to pummel the nursing home industry, locally and nationwide. “Many retired early and others changed careers,” the administrator noted.

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