At 89, nursing home industry pioneer Rita Welch tells it her way
Rita St. John always was a go-getter. One of eight children, she helped her mother, a registered nurse, care for the elderly in their Quincy home. In 1949, eight years after she married her high school sweetheart, Frank Welch, the couple began caring for frail older people in their large Victorian farmhouse in Braintree.
Two beds became 11, and the John Scott House was licensed. It was just the start of a growing enterprise.
Today, Welch Healthcare and Retirement Group encompasses seven skilled nursing homes, four retirement communities, two elder apartment communities, three adult care day health centers, four assisted living residences and one home care services agency.
The company, based in Norwell, employs 2,000 full-time staff. Four generations of the Welch family have been involved in the business and Rita Welch is recognized as a pioneer in the nursing home industry.
That sounds like a story, and as the company celebrates its 60th anniversary, Rita Welch has written it, at age 89.
On Sunday, the family matriarch held a book signing party to celebrate the publication of her 225-page paperback, “Hand in Hand: My Family and My Business,” and Welch read excerpts. More than 300 guests waited in a long line to greet the author. The line included staff from many years, friends and other leaders in the South Shore nursing home field. The party was at The Village at Duxbury, one of Welch’s retirement communities.
Part memoir and family saga, “Hand in Hand” reads like a mini-series, as events and personalities unfold through the generations. This is a family marked by love and loyalty, strong commitments to their business and one another, and a variety of interests and talents. They share many of the joys and sorrows, the blessings and the tragedies found in most large families.
“My life is like a tapestry, where the story of motherhood is tightly woven with the work I did as a businesswoman, and with the story of my parents and childhood,” Welch writes.
Her story traces the development of the senior health care business, describing conflicts over industry leadership and struggles over ever-changing state regulations and reimbursements.
Through it all, Frank Welch was an equal partner. During 65 years of a close-knit marriage, the couple raised seven children, all of whom were involved in the family business at some point. Welch describes their contributions and their personalities; she worked with a professional writer and her children were not shown the book before it was published.
“It is my mother's story, and there are some things in there that shouldn't be in there, and some things that should be in there that aren't,” said her son, Richard Welch, president of the company.
One story she didn't include: whenever one of her adult children was in the hospital, she would arrive with a card table, take out her adding machine and work there for the day, looking after them as well.
“Hand in Hand” is dedicated to Frank Welch, who died in 2005. A quiet, hard-working man with many skills, formerly in the Navy and at the Fore River shipyard, he was the back-of-house force behind her her front-of-house strength.
The John Scott House was established just as the older population in this country began growing rapidly. The Welches were quick to recognize trends and possibilities. And Rita Welch was not shy about speaking out to raise standards and challenge public policies.
A founding member of the Massachusetts Federation of Nursing Homes, she became a familiar figure at the State House and in Washington.
“I wanted credibility for the industry,” she said.
Sue Scheible may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.