WESTERLY — Older residents in the Westerly-Pawcatuck area in need of inpatient geriatric psychiatric care won't have to travel far now that an 18-bed dedicated unit is about to open at Westerly Hospital.

About 70 town and state officials and members of the hospital's board and staff gathered Friday afternoon for a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark completion of the $4.8 million unit. The unit has been in the planning stages for about two years and emerged as a priority after the hospital's affiliation with the Yale New Haven Health system in 2016.

"We made a commitment from day one of the affiliation with Yale New Haven Health system that we were going to make significant commitments to this community," said Patrick L. Green, president and CEO of Westerly Hospital. "From our community health needs assessment, behavioral health was one of the top priorities and we're very excited that we can bring world class care for our most vulnerable patients in this community.".

Statistics provided by the hospital illustrate the need for the new facility, which is the first geriatric psychiatric unit in Washington County. According to a hospital news release, over the next five years the population of people 55 and older in the county is expected to grow by 8.7%, from 45,3312 to 49,287, and inpatient discharges for mental health disorders in the 60 and older group are projected to increase by 22% in the same period.

Stephen Greene, chairman of the Westerly Hospital board, said the new unit is "stunning." He noted that his mother was born in the hospital in 1927, and that he and his five children were also born in the Wells Street facility. "The point of my story is  that Westerly Hospital has been here for a long time to meet needs. There was a need back then and we met the need. Today we're still meeting the need and will continue to meet the need as we go forward. Today the need is behavioral health," Greene said.

Greene said that the hospital is Westerly's largest employer with about 700 full- and part-time employees. "And that number is absolutely growing," he said. "These folks have been with us through the not so good times and through the good times."

The new unit symbolizes Yale New Haven's desire to make a difference in the community, said Michael Holmes, the system's senior vice president of operations and leader of its behavioral health service line. Once the affiliation was complete, Holmes said he challenged his colleagues to develop a new line of services in the Westerly community. "I said what can we do on behalf our system to show Westerly how committed we are ... right there in front was geriatric."

The 10,000-square-foot unit is on the hospital's second floor in space once occupied by the women's health center, which was closed in the months leading up to L+M Healthcare's purchase of Westerly Hospital in 2013. The unit, which will start accepting patients on Wednesday, will start with 12 beds but will have a capacity of 18.

The unit has a dining area that is separated from the rest of the unit and two quiet rooms. It also has an examination room, consultation area, a conference room, a group therapy room, a medication room, and a nurses' station.

Dr. Peter Morgan, chair of  psychiatry at L+M and Westerly Hospital, said the new unit developed  through teamwork and synergy. "It's overwhelming to think of how much had to come together in the right way and how the support had to come from so many angles," he said.

Morgan participated in a lecture series at the hospital on Thursday night. The topic was depression and mental health in the senior citizen population. Several people in the audience asked questions about how they can can help seniors who are struggling, he said.

"This community is playing a huge part in making a unit like this work ... it's that kind of support from the community that allows all of us here do our job," Morgan said.

Rick D'Aquila, president of Yale New Haven Health, said the new unit reflects the  willingness of the Westerly Hospital board and the facility's other leaders to adapt to the community's needs.

"What I think really stands out here is that this is going to be the nicest unit of its kind probably in the tri-state area. The fact that it's not just compliant with all of the codes, it's aesthetically beautiful and it really creates an environment for patients that says 'You're as important as any other patient.' I give these guys, the board of trustees and leadership, a lot of credit for backing something like this," D'Aquila said.

The contractor for the project was A/Z Corporation of North Stonington. The design team was Payette of Boston, GMI of Bristol and BR+A of Boston.

State Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, noted the graying of the town's population and projected demographic trends. "This was a good move on the hospital's part," he said.

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