Small staff, big hearts — simple needs

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

Mary Tellis-Nayak often makes it a point to visit nursing homes in other countries when she and her husband, Vivian, travel. A 2012 trip to his hometown of Mangalore, India, was no different.

The couple's niece took them just a mile down the road from Vivian's childhood home to the Sisters of Charity, a facility run by nuns that houses hundreds of orphaned children, people with mental disabilities and the elderly. But for Tellis-Nayak, a long-term care vet with a career spanning 35 years, the most extraordinary aspect of the nuns' operation wasn't the number of people they took in — it was the skeleton crew staff that handled it all, led by a woman named Sister Sylvia.

“I asked her where's the staff, where are the nurse aides?” Tellis-Nayak said. “She said ‘We have people working in the kitchen and we have two maintenance men who work on the outside and do the repairs and do that sort of thing, but we really don't have any other staff.'”

In total, seven nuns care for an estimated 450 residents at Sisters of Charity. The younger, more able-bodied residents help with laundry, cleaning and care for the residents who can't move as well. The thought of a medicine cart, Tellis-Nayak said, isn't even a thought. A younger resident simply walks around the open dormitories with a plastic bucket filled with pill bottles, instructed on who needs what medications by Sister Sylvia, a trained pharmacist.

That first trip to Sisters of Charity three years ago was eye opening for Tellis-Nayak, “coming from a country in which our elders are cared for with dignity, private rooms for everybody, the good stuff.”

There are no private rooms for residents at Sisters of Charity — instead, residents sleep on beds in a two large, open dormitories separated by gender. The kitchen, where the nuns cook up batches of rice and lentil curry for residents each day, uses wood-burning fires to fill pipes with steam, which in turn heat up the cooking vats in another room.

That antiquated kitchen is in need of replacement, Tellis-Nayak said. Her current goal is to raise funds to update the nuns' cooking facilities, along with educating her Facebook friends, those in the long-term care industry and anyone else who will listen about the spirit of the Sisters of Charity.

“The calendar shows no scheduled vacations, mental-health days, or personal days,” for the nuns, Vivian wrote in an article about the home. “The ready smile on their faces and the subtle spring in their step bespeak of minds at peace and hearts touched by joy.”

That commitment to care and joy in the face of adversity are among lessons the couple hopes nursing homes in the United States can learn from the Sisters of Charity — although providers here should probably leave the medicine cart in the hands of the professionals.

To learn more about the Sisters of Charity and Tellis-Nayak's campaign for their new kitchen, click here.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.