MOUNT CARMEL - Helen Stank, a lover of bingo and bacon, was all smiles as Darlene Stelma did her hair.

Helen, a sweet, sharp woman who turns 102 next month, has been living in the skilled-nursing unit at Mount Carmel Senior Living Community for three years, and she has plenty of positive things to say.

"I really love it here. They have the best cooks in the world," she said. "It's such a wonderful place. They're always doing nice things for us to make us happy."

Stelma, who has been working at the borough nursing home for 24 years, said she adores listening to Helen and other residents tell their stories from long ago.

"They tell me how things were in the Depression and their jobs as coal miners, and they talk about the price of things and what they cost back then," she said. "It's a nice place to work."

Those sentiments, combined with $1 million in renovations, new food choices and stellar ratings from the government, have Mount Carmel Senior Living Community standing proud as it celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Opened in 1983

The Mount Carmel Senior Living Community, located along Locust Gap Highway across from the Silver Bowl, employs 170 people and, as such, is one of the largest employers in the borough. It is licensed by the state departments of health and welfare,

A 24-hour nursing supervision facility owned by JDK Management, Bloomsburg, it offers assistance for daily living, plus medical, nursing, therapy, dietary and pharmacy needs.

Ground was broken for what was then called Mount Carmel Nursing Center in January 1983. It opened to the first resident on July 20 of that year. (A 30th anniversary open house was held last Sunday.)

Services expanded in October 1996 with the addition of a 30-bed, fully furnished assisted-living facility and outpatient rehabilitation clinic.

The Mount Carmel Senior Living Community name came into existence in 2008, and the facility today offers skilled nursing, personal care and independent living options. There are 121 skilled-nursing beds, 26 personal-care beds and two independent living suits.

The apartment-style suites include laundry, housekeeping, activities, meals, maintenance - and the peace of mind of having trained medical staff nearby, said administrator Stephen M. Wetzel.

Mount Carmel Senior Living has two therapy clinics, one for skilled-nursing residents, the other for outpatient service that includes a fitness gym and endless pool.

5-star rating

The attitude of residents and staff helps explain why the nursing home reached a five-star rating, the highest possible, from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) earlier this year. Only 10 percent of facilities in the state can have that ranking at any given time.

The facility is now at four stars, but the level of care is still the same, Wetzel said.

The rating is based on an annual survey from the state Department of Health, the quality of staff and the quality of services from the last three years.

The scores for the center have never been better in 30 years, and only three years ago when Wetzel became administrator, Mount Carmel Senior Living Community scored a 1, he said.

"Our facility has been in operation for 30 years, which is a testament to the dedication of our staff that provides superior care to each resident and the confidence families have in us," Wetzel said.

And local residents like having such a facility so close to home.

$1M in renovations

Mount Carmel Senior Living recently completed $1 million in renovations. Every hallway, resident room and therapy room was brought up to date and made more attractive, Wetzel said, while public WiFI was installed for residents and visiting family members and the company website was upgraded.

Residents are often taken on field trips to Knoebels Amusement Resort, local restaurants and farmers markets. They play bingo and attend ice cream socials, and are offered church services and frequent musical entertainment. Residents also manage a garden of vegetables, with their crops used by the facility.

Recently, the food service has been changed to a restaurant model, where residents can have eggs any way they want them, pancakes, waffles and other options for breakfast.

"What's happening, it's improving their appetites. If they're improving their appetites, it improves their nutrition. If it improves their nutrition, it prevents illness," Wetzel said.

Residents are served larger portions with different choices of meats and sides, salads, breads and desserts for lunch, a smaller supper of soup or sandwich, and three snacks during the day.

Also, the dining room is decorated colorfully for the seasons.

Enjoying live

The atmosphere, food options and other changes are designed to make residents feel more at home, said Susan Horan, kitchen employee since 1984 and food service director for the past six years,

"We're proud of it," she said.

As for Helen Stank, she credits eating habits - along with constant prayer and hard work - for living into a second century.

"I always eat a lot of vegetables, and nothing diet," she said as her hair-do continued. "One time they brought me 2 percent milk. I would not put that in my mouth."

Horan isn't only an employee. She brought her mother, who passed away nearly two years ago, to the facility after years of taking care of her at home.

She learned then just how much he staff is like family, and how they treat each resident like their own mother or father.

"It was the first time I could go home at night," she said about moving her mother in to Mount Carmel Senior Living Community, "without having to worry."