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* * Ferne Moschella, President of Warm Hearth, loves elder care

Warm Hearth Village is the largest elder care facility in Southwest Virginia, and one of the most successful, with an occupancy rate of over 96%, providing homes to almost 600 seniors. Ferne Moschella, who has been with Warm Hearth for 18 years, is its current President and CEO, carrying on the legacy of Wybe and Marietje Kroontje, who founded it in 1974. I spoke with Ferne in her office and asked about the joys and challenges.

“I was hired as Chief Operating Officer,” she told me. “I had worked for Carilion for 9 years, and was traveling a lot. My office was at Roanoke Memorial (Hospital). I wanted a job closer to home. I have lived in Christiansburg since 1991, and I raised my two children there.”

Ferne is from the Queens borough of New York City. She and her husband moved here from Ithaca after her husband finished his PhD at Cornell, when he got a job in research in physics. With her MBA, she felt flexible about her career. They came down for a visit, liked what they saw, and then moved.

Long story short, she was hired on at Warm Hearth in 2000, and she started her new job the same day that the Kroontje Center opened and their workforce doubled.

I asked about her impressions in how Warm Hearth today matches the founders’ vision. She said, “Their legacy is alive and well. ‘Our mission is to enrich the lives of seniors of all socio-economic backgrounds through a wide range of choices in housing, services, and care.’ It has been modestly tweaked from its original version. I hope this is a vision that (all our staff) can recite. We try to ingrain it in every person who comes to work here. Enriching the lives of seniors is what we’re here to do. All of us here, regardless of our title, have the same job, which is adding meaning and value to people’s lives.”

About her predecessors, she said she is perhaps more liberal-minded in allowing customization of homes and with Warm Hearth’s pet policies. “We believe that having pets enriches people’s lives. So we encourage it. Our staff is willing to go the extra mile to help our residents take care of their animals.

“About the customizations; these are people’s homes. If they want to do something to it that makes it more livable to them, and it’s not going to diminish the value, we let them do it.”

I asked, “Your background is not in geriatrics. What ‘is it’ about old people?”

She said, “Our elders have resilience, wisdom, and a depth and breadth of experience that is unique. What we have to learn from and be inspired by, on a daily basis here, is just phenomenal. This feeling permeates our staff as well. Absolutely. The people we’re serving have served others their entire lives. They’ve been our doctors, our nurses, our teachers, and our professors. Our friends and our neighbors. This is our opportunity to give something back to them. They are at a time in their life where their world is narrowing. As humans, our need for relationships does not change as we get older. When you live to be among the oldest people in society, your peer group has fallen away, by definition. When your life expectancy is 78 and you’re 88, or 98, or 100, and we have people here are over 100, you’ve outlived your support group.

“When you’ve outlived your spouse, your life partner, your friends, your siblings, and sometimes your children, our job becomes being friend and family. Whether you’re the caregiver, the nurse, or the CEO, you’re now their friend and family. In working here, we all find we receive more than we give. We develop deep relationships with our residents.

“I went to a funeral yesterday for a woman who lived here for 11 years. Two years ago, we were at a memorial for one of her neighbors. She said to me, ‘Ferne, it means so much to us that you come to funerals. I hope you’ll come to mine.’ I said to her, ‘I appreciate that and I hope it’s a long time before it happens. But I’ll be there.’ So come hell or high water, I was going to be at hers. 

 “We have amazing, accomplished people here whose lives deserve to be celebrated. Knowing these people is a real benefit for me. They deserve the best we can give them, to help them live their best lives. That’s what we’re about.

“Every time I go to our Village Center and I see residents and people from the community from all walks of life, in the pool, exercising, having lunch, just socializing, I just want to pinch myself. Warm Hearth is a place for living. Wow; that’s it for me.”


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