A Nurse Caring for Her Community


Steve Hill

Fe Hilario checks on a sleeping Franklin Hill at the Magdalene House in Sunnyvale, California. The care home caters to six senior residents who require 24-hour care.

Steve Hill, Times Staff

It’s a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon in Sunnyvale, but there is trouble at Magdalene Residential Care House.

“F— You, B—-,” the words rang out angrily from Barbara, a wheelchair-bound resident, causing Fe Hilario to stop in her tracks and spin around to face the offender.

“That’s not nice, Barbara,” Hilario said.
“I know.”
“What do you need, dear?”
“I don’t know.”
“I will reposition you, and then you can eat.”
“I’m not hungry, you b—-.”

Profanity-laced outbursts and crying are some of the challenges with dementia patients, but Hilario has an exceptional ability to communicate with the most difficult patients.

“I will calm her down through conversation, communication, ask her what she wants,” Hilario said. “With her personality, I feel successful if I can calm her down.”

Hilario is a nurse and the owner of this care home. She’s also a mother, daughter, wife, boss and friend; and while she may have many hats to wear, her passion is caregiving.

In fact, she lives, eats and breaths caring for others. Her home caters to six elderly patients with varying degrees of illness, but it’s not her only job. She also works at another residential care facility for part of the day.

There are also plans to open a new facility next door as well as another one in 2020.

According to the website caregiver.org, each year 8,357,100 people receive support from the five main types of long-term care services:

  • 4,742,500 in home health agencies
  • 1,383,700 in nursing homes
  • 1,244,500 in hospices
  • 713,500 in residential care communities
  • 273,200 in adult day service centers

Long-term care is also expensive. Spending on care from public funds, out-of-pocket funds and other private funds was $219.9 billion in 2012 and is expected to increase to $346 billion by 2040.

 “I had no plans to be a nurse,” Hilario said.  “My ambition growing up was just to have a stable job and to go abroad.”

One of eleven children, Hilario graduated from Cebu University in Cebu, Philippines. Her parents encouraged their children to get an education in any field they wanted.  Hilario chose Radiologic Technology.

After graduating, she did go abroad. She was an X-ray technician in Saudi Arabia for three years before returning home to further her education. She eventually came to the U.S.

“My family knew the owner of a care home here so I grabbed that opportunity,” Hilario said. “That’s when I started working as a caregiver (in 2008).  I did that for six years before opening Magdalene House in 2014.”

She learned caregiving on the job while working with nonverbal developmentally disabled patients, who they communicated with through eye contact or gestures.

When she transferred to another care facility, she worked with elderly and disabled people.

Through her work, she is creating a safe environment for residents and their families to gather, as well as providing work for people that need a job and have a passion to care for these kinds of people.

Elsa Lopez has been a caregiver for 16 years and worked for Fe for the last three years.

“Fe has created a community here where even the staff is well-cared for and well-compensated,” Lopez said. “Fe is so good with patients, calming them down when they have panic attacks. She’ll stay with them and comfort them until they feel better.”

The residents of the Magdalene House all have varying degrees of health issues, mobility issues and mental abilities. Some only stay a short time to recuperate from surgery or illness, some of the residents are severely disabled and require 24-hour care.

Larry Millsap, who is a family friend of one patient, said Hilario has a gentle, caring way with the most difficult people, effortlessly calming and reassuring reassure them.

“She’s very kind and inventive, too, which I witnessed at a birthday party,” Millsap said. “One resident was unable to lean in to blow out his candles, and she came to his rescue by improvising with a straw, which she held to his mouth so he could get the job done.”

Hilario, along with the handful of caregivers who also live in the home, must be flexible, patient and understanding.

“All I have to do is accept everything, any ups and downs, especially when it comes to this business,” Hilario said. “There are lows and highs, but I’ll be positive the whole time.”

Barbara, the foul-mouthed resident, is still yelling out to no one in particular as Hilario approaches and quietly asks her again what she needs.

“I don’t know,” is the response. Barbara is repositioned in her wheelchair, made comfortable and gently reassured that all is well.  Moments later she is eating.

Hilario accepts the unusual behavior of her residents and also that they will someday die. In fact, most will die here. Acceptance is key for Hilario.

“Life is not forever; there’s an end,” Hilario said. “Only love lasts longer, unconditional love.”