Throughout 2020, the Queen Silvia Nursing Award will highlight the dedicated partners that bring the scholarship to life in their respective countries. With profiles ranging from an ever-expanding elderly and dementia community to specialized healthcare services and non-profit social and healthcare organizations, these organizations share a special affiliation with the Queen Silvia Nursing Award. Each is deeply committed to the future of nursing opportunities within their country, and together, operating the scholarship in their respective regions, they lift the overall objective of highlighting the important role of nurses in society, as well as advocating for nursing in their region.

This month, we will focus on Germany’s  St. Anna-Stift under the leadership of Managing Director, Ulrich Zerhusen.

St. Anna-Stift, Kroge
Image credit: Zerhusen & Blömer

The family-run organization St. Anna-Stift is situated in Lower Saxony, Germany, nestled in the picturesque village of Kroge. Heritage homes with tidy gardens line the street leading up to the local abbey. There, amongst lush greenery backing out to stretches of forest, Ulrich Zerhusen, Managing Director of St. Anna-Stift, operates an elderly and dementia care community. This quiet and peaceful environment does little to hide the passion and determination of Zerhusen, who, in a short stretch of time, has driven inspired solutions that benefit not only St. Anna-Stift guests, but also their employees.

We spoke with Ulrich to understand his perspective as a problem-solver who views the parameters of the German health care system through a lens of opportunity and creativity, rather than one of restrictions and limitations.

Can you tell us about the history of St. Anna-Stift and how it became a family business?

My mother and her sister started their home care service in 2002, but our history in this area stretches significantly further back.

Their father– my grandfather– inherited these 28 hectares of land from a local noblewoman, Anna Wassenberg. She adopted him when he was 30 and working as a farmhand. Anna was widowed and had no children of her own, and during the Second World War, any land that wasn’t connected to a male owner or heir could be readily seized by the Nazis. Anna wanted to ensure that the area would not meet such a fate.

Along with the land came the local abbey, which had been built in the 1920s. Part of Anna’s ambition was to keep the church and the local order of nuns thriving. We are proud that we have been able to contribute to the steady presence of The Sacred Heart Church in our community, and over the years, we have also secured the abbey as a safe, familiar and loving place where the order of nuns is able to enjoy their retirement.

As my mother and her siblings grew up in this town, they shared many positive experiences with Anna Wassenberg and the nuns. They were surrounded by an abundance of care, community and genuine concern for others. This early experience and environment inspired them to become nurses, and subsequently, they worked for many years in local hospitals in the vicinity. They became respected specialists in their own right, cultivating a real passion to continue learning and bettering their skillsets. These are skills that we continue to apply at St. Anna-Stift today.

“Families are best understood by families”
From left to right: Ulrich Zerhusen, Angela Zerhusen, Elisabeth Blömer and Marie-Luise Bertels
Image credit: Zerhusen & Blömer

Your background is not within the care sphere. How did you get involved in the family business and how has that worked to your advantage?

True! I have a background in business with university studies from Münster and the UK. I was based in the States with my family in 2011 when my mother asked me to return to Germany to help her with our family business. She had fallen ill and needed assistance, essentially to keep things going together with my aunt. Within two months, we were back in Germany.

I think my business ‘lens’ has primarily helped the organization grow and develop. I want to continuously provide life-affirming, unique experiences for the guests, but I can’t do that while sitting at my desk, analyzing spreadsheets, watching margins and cutting costs. It became apparent to me that the creativity, problem-solving and out-of-box thinking that I’d benefited from in business would be needed in order to lead our organization in new directions.

We wanted to not only grow and build our organization, but also make lasting change that benefits our community. Our vision was to always be able to provide the maximum level of dignity and highest quality of life to our guests, as well as to disrupt the status quo in exciting new ways. This isn’t always easy with the highly regulated German healthcare system, so it has been very important for us to look for new opportunities to communicate and cooperate, and ultimately, to find new ways to get things done.

We had serious discussions about bringing the Queen Silvia Nursing Award to Germany and decided to embrace the opportunity because it would allow us to bring a higher level of awareness and interest to the field of elderly and dementia care. With this high-profile scholarship award and Her Majesty Queen Silvia’s advocacy, we are able to emphasize the great work of nurses; work that’s driven by knowledge, dedication and a lot of heart, but not always fully recognized for its amazing contributions. By bringing the Award to Germany, we are able to create much-needed momentum and advocacy about the nursing profession.

What are some of the changes and developments that you have brought to St. Anna-Stift?

We are currently in the midst of building a children’s daycare next to the abbey, and our vision is that the children will be able to have regular activities with our elderly guests. There are plenty of studies that support the benefits of intergenerational care. The daycare children need the time and space to speak, learn and ask questions, and our guests have time to give them this. We brought the proposal to our local city council, and together with my cousin, Marie-Luise Bertels, a Silviahemmet trainer and a partner in the St. Anna-Stift organization, we secured a grant for EUR100,000  to help us build the facility. This will be a huge benefit for our employees in particular, as they are primarily women with children of their own. If they are able to have their children close to their place of work and have the opportunity to blend activities with them throughout the day, this will be a huge win for everyone. Securing nursing and care talent is a challenge for every organization, so I’m happy to strive to become a more attractive employer with benefits that really speak to the needs of our employee base.

In 2012, we also opened the Klostercafé, an initiative that stemmed from the residents and employees working here. It is open to the public as well as our guests, which is important for the café’s daily operations. We wanted to incorporate it into the wider community and create a place where the nuns, residents, employees, guests and residents in the village can come by for a chat, have some coffee or enjoy a slice of cake.

Klostercafé, part of the St. Anna-Stift in Kroge, Germany

Last year, we incorporated a CrossFit program for the residents and employees as well. There certainly were no previous cases of this being adopted into care organizations, so we had to begin the dialogue with authorities from scratch. We found ourselves creating a clear concept alongside a corresponding program to present to insurers and regulators. I am proud to say that we were able to get this approved through clear communication and alignment about the end-goal benefits for all the members of the St. Anna-Stift community.

Strong in body, strong in spirit
The CrossFit gym at St. Anna-Stift with sports partner mphysio
Image credit: Zerhusen & Blömer facebook

What challenges are you facing at St. Anna-Stift?

Fundamentally, my family’s vision was to build a community of care professionals who bring about positive change within elderly and dementia care. We are well aware that the ageing population, alongside growing numbers of people diagnosed with cognitive decline, make for challenging circumstances. Factor in the difficulties of finding nursing talent, paying them fairly and upholding a shared passion within long-term care, and you start to understand our momentous challenges.

We were keen to see care in this field elevated, and we knew that we had to start where we could– locally, here in Kroge. We felt that if we could make a difference here for those who needed care and those who work within elderly and dementia care, then maybe we could make an impact elsewhere. It became really apparent that care needed to get back to the human experience, to a very personal place with plenty of heart in order to make it shine.

Being part of the Queen Silvia Nursing Award has been an important aspect of our strategy to bring focus to the needs of care providers and nurses.  The scholarship shines a spotlight on the issues at hand and we are glad to be part of this wonderful program.   We look forward to being able to grow the QSNA in Germany and make it even more prominent and impactful in future years. 

Most importantly, while we know that there are many challenges in our field, we choose to look at these challenges as opportunities.  We believe we can make a difference in maximizing the quality of care provided, by forcing change in the industry to better serve both patient and employee needs and by helping make our world a better place for everyone in our communities. 

Ulrich Zerhusen with Annette Löser, the 2018 Queen Silvia Nursing Award scholar from Chemnitz, Germany
Image credit: Queen Silvia Nursing Award Germany