To Francis O’Connell, caring for a sick loved one at home just makes sense. One could say it runs in his family.
“I grew up in Holyoke with an elderly aunt and grandfather in the same home,” he said. “They didn’t go anywhere when they got sick; our family took care of them at home.”
Today, as owner of O’Connell Professional Nurse Service in Holyoke, he has put that philosophy into practice for others, providing nursing services to help people care for their elderly and often ailing parents at home, away from an institutional setting.
“I’ve found that home care clients are happier at home,” said O’Connell, whose business marked its 20th anniversary this year. “They just seem to recuperate faster. It’s cost-effective, and it’s just something I’ve always personally believed in. So that’s how this business developed to where it is today.”
O’Connell finds himself in an enviable position these days, succeeding in a field that promises even more business opportunities down the road. As people live longer than they used to, and with their caregivers and children (often one and the same) more aware than ever of the care options available to them, demand for home care and other nursing services should only increase.
This month, The Healthcare News examines how O’Connell found himself running a nursing service to begin with — and why he’s excited about the next 20 years.
O’Connell told The Healthcare News that nursing — perhaps partly due to his upbringing — always seemed like a natural career choice; “I didn’t really think of it as a female profession.” After earning a Nursing degree from Columbia University in 1984, he returned to Holyoke and discovered that several of his friends were taking the entrepreneurial route and opening their own businesses.
“Nurses usually work at hospitals or take jobs somewhere, but I just incorporated myself and started selling myself as a nurse,” he said. “If someone needed a nurse for the day, or someone got out of the hospital and needed a private-duty nurse, I did that. Word got out quickly, and I couldn’t do every shift, so I started bringing in friends, and before long I had 10 people subcontracting for me.”
Someone pointed out that O’Connell was essentially running a temp agency, so he took the next step and employed his fellow nurses, and the business was on its way.
“One reason I went into nursing was the job security,” he said, “and I knew I was good at it. A lot of people are uncomfortable dealing with people who are sick or people who are dying, but I wasn’t.” Soon, he found himself getting calls for nurses to do visits for the Holyoke Visiting Nurses Assoc., and the home care aspect of his business began to take shape.
“I found I loved doing home care,” said O’Connell, who earned his master’s degree in nursing in 1996 and was certified as a family nurse practitioner. “In 20 years, we’ve taken care of hundreds of families. They come to us saying, ‘Fran, I’ve got this long-term care policy, and I’m not sure what it covers,’ or “I’ve got XYZ policy; does it include home care?’ or ‘do I need a will or a health care proxy?’ People were asking us these questions, and we had to become proficient in answering them.”
Enter the geriatric care manager, a position O’Connell added to his staff to make sure people get the right answers for questions on paying for long-term care, navigating the different types of coverage, and wills and proxies, to name a few. And the children of aging parents have not been shy about asking.
“Baby Boomers want what they want, when they want it,” O’Connell said. “They’re products of the revolutionary ’60s, and they don’t want any government program telling them they can’t recuperate at home or die at home. They’ve lived a certain way all their lives, and they don’t want to stop just because they’re sick or dying or recuperating from something. So they hire us to help them figure it out.”
To that end, as a private agency whose services aren’t dictated by Medicare and Medicaid, O’Connell has some flexibility in what to offer clients.
“If someone is entitled to Medicare or Medicaid, or reimbursed through private insurance, we help them secure that, and also supplement their care,” he said, quickly adding that the range of options — basically, what people need and can afford — can be confusing, which is why O’Connell takes pride in providing needed guidance.
“No one tries to make their own will or do their own divorce; you generally need some professional help,” he said. “We’re not lawyers, but we can help demystify the process and calm folks down a little bit.”
In doing so, O’Connell said children of elderly parents can focus on being family, and not just being caretakers.
“When Mom or Dad is sick, a lot of folks spend a whole lot of time with the mechanics of how to take care of them,” he said. “We try to take that piece away from them, so they can spend quality time with their parents, and that’s key.”
Right Place, Right Time
Today, with a roster of employees that includes RNs, LPNs, home health aides, and certified nursing assistants, and a staff of care coordinators that help communicate with other care providers — close to 100 employees in all — O’Connell has set his business up for continued growth, simply because of the aging population and the fact that more people are looking into home care as a viable alternative to nursing homes.
And he continues to pitch his services as a benefit not only to people who need nursing care and daily help at home, but their families, too. “My heart goes out to folks who are so caught up in arranging and supervising care for their parents that they miss out on opportunities together,” he said.
Speaking of opportunities, O’Connell takes a different kind of pride in seeing people come work for him as CNAs, then go on to get RN or LPN degrees and return as nurses. “A lot of them have been able to buy their first home working here,” he said. “We even have a couple of mother-daughter teams.”
Not that nursing is just for women, of course.
“I really enjoy working here,” O’Connell said. “I love the people, and it’s just going to get bigger. We just want people to know they do have a choice, that there are alternatives. There’s nothing wrong with nursing homes, but if you want to explore other options, we can definitely help you do that.”
After all, there’s no place like home.