Caring for Your Elders

Atchison’s Dooley Center named one of the best nursing homes in the nation


by Steve Johnson 

ATCHISON — Sister Mary Ethel Burley was a major part of the lives of thousands of elementary-aged youngsters during her lengthy teaching career. For 50 years, she helped form the minds and morals of students at St. Anthony School in Kansas City, Kan., as well as Catholic schools in Ottawa and Seneca. She put everything into her teaching and truly cared about each little face that looked up at her.

But what happened to Sister Mary Ethel after all those years? Is she well cared for? Is she happy? Is she even alive?

Well, you can rest assured that she is just as vibrant and full of humor at age 87 as she was when she was teaching. And she is now looked after with the same care and enthusiasm she brought to the classroom. She is a resident of the Dooley Center, one of the 12 best nursing homes in the nation.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is home to the Dooley Center, the care facility associated with the Benedictine Sisters’ Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison. Those who visit get an immediate sense of home and community, and those who live there know they get the best care.

The Dooley Center was recently named one of America’s Best Nursing Homes by U.S. News & World Report magazine. Based on the new federal government Five Star System, the magazine gathered information on nearly 16,000 facilities across America. The Dooley Center not only made the list, but rose to the top.

It is one of the few in the nation, and the only one in the Midwest, that scored a perfect rating in all federal government measures for four straight quarters.

“We have had five stars across the board every quarter since the inception of the program,” said Barbara Stec, the administrator for the center.

The residents seem to share the same pride in the honor as the Sisters and the Dooley staff.

“I consider this my inheritance,” Sister Mary Ethel quipped. “I have a lot to be grateful for.”

At a time when most of the news about nursing homes has been bad, how has the Dooley Center achieved such heights? One of the reasons is the very nature of the Benedictine order.

“There is the line from the Rule of St. Benedict that, above all else, we are to care for the sick. . . . Christ is asking us to care for the sick,” said Sister Anne Shepard, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica. “We are taking that line seriously. We do value our monastic elders, and they’re going to get the best possible care we can give them. That’s the joy for us.”

“Another thing we have is a staff that has been here for a long time,” said Stec. “We have unspeakably low turnover. And to have nurses who have been here for 15 years or more is incredibly important to the continuity of care. They know our residents and know what their needs are. Staffing issues are one of the biggest issues faced within the industry, and we have not had to worry about that.”

The building was renovated in 2007, replacing nursing stations with simple desks, adding new electronics, expanding the dining area and other community areas, and giving each private room new handcrafted oak furnishings built at the monastery by Sister Elaine Fischer.

“We wanted to lose some of the traditional trappings of a nursing home when we did the renovation,” said Stec. “Nursing homes have generally been designed to look like miniature hospitals, and now Dooley doesn’t. We got rid of the big nurses’ desk and that makes it seem much more like home. And we also got rid of the call bell system and have a wireless system that rings straight to a pager with each nurse, and that significantly reduced the noise level.”

“We have a facility that is very welcoming,” Sister Anne confirmed. “The dining space is bright; it’s large, it’s fresh. The TV room, the living room — all the space is wonderful. The increased natural lighting [since the renovation] does wonders for the spirit, even on a gray, wintry day.”

She said the hominess helps make it more like family, and the staff is caring for people they know and love. Stec gave the example that even during the big snowstorm in December, they had every single staff member report for work.

“I was very proud of them,” Stec said. “And grateful. This is their family, too. And this is all part of good health for the residents. You need to be happy to be healthy, and there is a lot more to good care than just good nursing care.”

“This is a different environment than what you get at most nursing homes, and I’m not sure if you can call it a nursing home,” said Dr. Jon Siebert, Dooley Center’s medical director. “They’re happy, I’m happy, all the people that work here are happy. It’s really a great place to see patients. It’s just a great place to be.”

The facility is reserved for the Benedictine Sisters and their female relatives, so it is not available to the general public. The two other long-term care facilities in the archdiocese — Santa Mar- ta and Villa St. Francis, both in Olathe — have already scheduled visits to see what makes Dooley the center of excellence it is.

“We have great people who care for us, and we care for them, too,” said Sister Mary Ethel with a smile and a gleam in her eye. “And, yes, people need no longer be surprised that I’m still alive.”

Leave a Reply