Province Nurse Michelle Viacava guides a senior friar back from a walk.

Senior care is the focus at St. John the Baptist Friary

The sky is nothing but blue, so it’s a good day for a picnic at St. John the Baptist Friary in Sharonville. At lunchtime, retired residents gather under an umbrella in the courtyard for barbecued ribs, macaroni salad, coleslaw and conversation.

After a dessert of frozen fudge bars, friars go their separate ways, one doing his daily laps around the halls, most returning to their rooms for an afternoon of rest – all under the watchful eye of Province Nurse Michelle Viacava. What these men have, and most senior friars do not, is around-the-clock care in their own home.


Michelle Viacava and Niesha Chandler

If they need help managing medicines, doing laundry or making their bed, Michelle or a member of her staff is there to assist. If memory fails and they can’t find their way, someone gets them where they need to go. Vitals are checked weekly by a nurse or nurse’s aide, and the in-house doctor comes once a month. In any kind of crisis, a tug on the wall-mounted call light in their room brings immediate attention.

Over the past two months, SJB Friary has been transformed – but not noticeably – with a coat of paint and shampooed carpeting. Cleared of weeds and cobwebs, the courtyard is equipped with rocking chairs and an outdoor dinette. Hall closets contain wound care supplies, an oxygen concentrator, wheelchairs and a lift apparatus. The windowed room up front has become an office where medical records, staff work schedules and daily medications are kept.

Designated a “senior care facility”, it’s still very much a friary.

Thinking ahead

Several residents who are employed full- or part-time come and go, pursuing their regular schedules. As in the past, there’s a wall-mounted calendar of special events, a rec room stocked with a TV and recliners, and weekday dinners prepared in the kitchen of the adjacent St. Joseph Home, where the Sisters of Charity provide a loving environment for severely disabled children and adults.

Surrounded by acres of lawn and trees, the property is “like a nature preserve,” Michelle says. “There are deer and geese out back. It’s quiet and peaceful. Very Franciscan.”

SJB geeseIn 1998, when this one-story friary with its 10 suites opened after extensive renovations, Provincial Building Coordinator Maynard Tetreault was thinking ahead. He made bathrooms wheelchair accessible and had handrails installed the length of the long hallways. Last year Michelle approached the Provincial Council with an idea for an assisted care facility at St. Clement. They ultimately decided that SJB Friary would need fewer renovations.

The Council approved the budget in mid-May. On June 1, “I was in here and setting it up,” says Michelle.

In-house attention

She hired nine nurses and nurses’ aides like Niesha Chandler, formerly with Mercy Franciscan Terrace and the assisted living unit for the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor. “I’ve always worked somewhere that was a religious place,” says Niesha, who prefers “the more peaceful environment.”

The bonus here is, “You get a lot of blessings,” says Michelle.

At SJB Friary, “There are five friars in the care rotation” who require various levels of physical help and memory care. “Some just need to be encouraged or reminded” when it’s laundry day or time for dinner. “Some are on quite a few medications,” all of which are monitored day and night by the nursing staff. “We can tweak the medicines or tell the doctor if the blood pressure goes down,” for example. “A lot of things are done in house,” including flu shots and some of the blood draws for lab work.

SJB Friary Fritzie

Fritzie responds to touch and voice commands.

Several friars in assisted care use the quarter-mile walking path outside the friary. All attend Mass in the Friars’ Chapel down the hall. Some stay occupied with things like puzzles or coloring books aimed at adults. “If they don’t feel like doing anything, I’ll take them out to the courtyard and just sit with them,” says Niesha. And if they need their space, Michelle says, “We know when they’ve had their fill.”

She and her staff plan movie nights, picnics, yoga sessions and excursions with Tom Gerchak of the Office for Senior Friars, who also takes the men out for haircuts. There’s even a community pet, Fritzie. He (or she) is a robotic golden retriever puppy, acquired through the Alzheimer’s Association, which responds to touch and voice commands with yips and wriggles and is a special friend to friars with limited mobility.

“This is person-centered – not patient-centered,” says Michelle. It’s not about an ailment or an impairment. “It’s about them as a person. This is their home. You want it to feel homey.”

Giving back

Physically, “It’s not much different here at all,” says John Bok, SJB’s longtime guardian. “I’m in awe of how well it has worked. I’m in awe of how well the friars who are not in need of assisted care have adjusted to having outsiders in the friary. I’m in awe of how self-giving the nurses are,” especially Michelle. “She’s wonderful. I told her, I’m learning so much about getting older” and the issues facing those with dementia.

As for Michelle, “I have a passion for this; it gives me a great purpose.” She is creating a model for compassionate care. But there is more. Working with these senior friars, “I feel like I’m gaining a new family. We sit together and share our day. We want them to feel that personal care and love.”

She thinks it is a fair exchange. “They give us their wisdom and their lives – and we help them when they need it.”

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BLINK 2019