On an unassuming weekday, a small group of residents at the Bessie Burton Sullivan Skilled Nursing Facility gather around a table and begin to sing with tremulous voices. The nursing home’s Fruit of the Month Club opens with the notes “Happy Tuesday” sung to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”
A large cardboard box containing five plump Royal Riviera pears is opened, and a knife is put to the fruit. Four of the pears have gone bad, and a few residents wrinkle their noses at the mushy brown interiors. The salvageable pear is sliced into slivers and a student volunteer tenderly places paper plates in front of residents.
The soft, sweet flesh of the pear nearly dissolves in each person’s mouth. One woman in a paisley shirt with painted nails and dark gray hair says she has never tasted a pear so sweet and delicious in her whole life.
Though the elderly residents of Bessie Burton are encouraged to experience something new every day, attendance at activities like the Fruit of the Month club is steadily dwindling. On Jan. 8, Seattle University announced that it would be closing Bessie Burton in order to use the space for student housing, classrooms, and faculty offices.
The nursing home has a special relationship with the university: Students learn from residents, listening to their stories and sage advice. Residents learn from students, attending lectures and art shows on campus. The facility has been a trial ground for aspiring nurses, engineers, counselors, and financial advisors. Several faculty members have had relatives spend their last days a five-minute walk from their offices.
“In college, you learn a lot about job skills, but not a lot about life skills. Volunteering at Bessie Burton is about learning how to grow old with dignity,” says Matt Salazar, a sophomore at SU. “We’re losing a piece of our family. We’ve created this deep relationship, and it will be hard to bounce back from that.”
The current residents of Bessie Burton are in the process of being relocated to other nursing homes. Individuals on Medicaid will have the most difficulty finding beds, according to Louise Ryan, the long-term care ombudsman for Washington state. Two other First Hill nursing homes have also closed recently, pushing relocated residents as far away as Issaquah. With the closing of Bessie Burton, a total of 400 beds between the three homes will be unavailable.
“Families felt a sense of urgency; people are scrambling to find places for their loved ones,” says Carmen Steiner, executive administrator for Bessie Burton. “Any relocation for elderly clients causes some level of trauma, but these are people who are pretty resilient, and have gone through many life changes.” She says that the families are the ones who leave crying.
Victoria Kill is hoping her father passes away before the doors are scheduled to close on March 15. “People give up their security and their possessions and expect [the transition into a nursing home] to be their final move,” says Kill, a professor of English at SU, whose father has been a hospice patient at Bessie Burton since June. “They make family with the people around them, and it’s frightening to move from an extended family into an environment of strangers.”
The staff nurses are also facing a period of upheaval and turmoil. Nurse Practitioner Cynthia Bracy has worked at Bessie Burton for 15 years. She was originally drawn to the facility because “other nursing homes were old and dirty.” Bracy is not sure what she will do once she leaves Bessie Burton, but is certain she will lose all her seniority. Bracy has a daughter starting college this year whom she will no longer be able to help with tuition. Not only is her daughter’s education in jeopardy, but also her own: Bracy was taking classes to become an RN, since SU lets nurses take five credits per quarter without cost.
Nursing students from SU and 13 other area schools come to Bessie Burton for their geriatric clinical rotations. “Being there gave me more perspective as to how life-changing the move [from Bessie Burton will be],” says Megan Auvil, a junior nursing student currently on clinical. “It made me more aware of the issues that the elderly are going through. It’s a home to them that’s being ripped away.”
President Fr. Stephen Sundborg has maintained that the nursing home is not essential to the purposes of the university. But several people see the closure as contrary to Jesuit values. “It’s an ironic and hypocritical thing to do to close the nursing home and speak about social justice,” says Mike Numrich, SU alum and staff member.
Yet the student housing that will replace the nursing home is a pressing need. Enrollment has been rising at a steady 6 percent over the past four years. Dr. Scott Smith, director of Housing and Residence Life at SU, explains the space crunch this way: More students are choosing to come to SU from a smaller pool of those being admitted.
The cost of housing in the Central District and other nearby neighborhoods has risen, Smith continues, so students have to live farther away, putting strains on parking and making it more difficult for them to be involved in school activities. “Significant research suggests that students who live on campus are more satisfied and more likely to graduate,” he says.
The residents and staff at Bessie Burton are now going through a new experience they had not anticipated, one not nearly as sweet and simple as tasting a pear. Activity Director Erika Campbell says, “Every day, one more person goes, every day is a new broken heart.”
By LAURA PEACH, Contributing Writer
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/21/feb-21-2007-entire-issue