Defenders, Doctors and Dancers: These are the People We Serve
March 12, 2018 | by The Members of LeadingAge
LeadingAge members tell the stories of remarkable people they work for—and with—every day.
LeadingAge members tell the stories of remarkable people they work for—and with—every day.
St. Ann’s Community, Rochester, NY
Everyone of a certain age remembers hearing about the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, South America—the largest mass murder-suicide in modern history.
But Carmen LaFleur, now 72, was there when it happened.
Today, LaFleur lives in Rochester, NY, where she participates in the Home Connection Adult Day Program of St. Ann’s Community. In 1978, she was serving with the Guyana National Service, a government-sponsored unit that served as a National Guard-style civil defense force.
“They took us to the interior and taught us military skills,” says LaFleur. “I know how to handle a weapon pretty good.”
Stationed in the Barima-Waini region in northern Guyana, LaFleur and her unit worked as a security force on government assignments. One haunts her to this day: guarding the property that Jim Jones, an American religious leader, leased from the government. The land was the home of his People’s Temple, known informally as Jonestown and later known as a cult.
“I was working in the interior, not far from his property,” says LaFleur. “Something erupted there.”
That “something” was gruesome. At Jones’ direction, 909 members of the Temple drank a poisoned Kool-Aid-like drink and died at the compound. Two hundred were children, given the poison by their parents.
“Everybody started falling and dying. We could see it,” LaFleur recalls. “There were little children. I was sick to my stomach.”
Jones died at the scene from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The event was the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001.
“I don’t even like recalling it,” says LaFleur. “I don’t want to experience it again. He (Jones) had a wicked mind.”
Although scarred by the massacre, LaFleur continued working in a military capacity, the area in which she’d been trained, and which allowed her to put food on the table for her 2 children. She served in the Guyana Defense Force for 6 years, worked as a police officer, and was an armed guard at the US Embassy in Guyana.
At the encouragement of her daughter, LaFleur eventually came to the U.S. She has her green card and is working toward full U.S. citizenship. A stroke in 2007 has made that difficult.
“I’ve been studying but I can’t remember everything,” she says. “With the stroke, I don’t get to think like before.” Today she can speak clearly, an ability that took her a long time to regain. “Before, you couldn’t understand a word I said.”
LaFleur has been participating in the Home Connection for 4 years. She lives with her daughter Debie, a nurse, and comes to the program 4 days a week while Debie is at work. She sees it as a place where she can keep her mind and her hands busy while knowing that care is available if she needs it.
“I try to get myself involved in everything—crafts, exercise, everything,” she says. “I enjoy it here. The workers are very courteous, and I feel safe. If I have medical needs, I have them by my side.”
A lifetime spent protecting others clearly impacts the way LaFleur lives today.
“She is very resilient, compassionate, and always looking out for others who are not as vocal as she is,” says Rola O’Meally, RN, director of adult day & dementia services at St. Ann’s. “She is a woman who has a heart of gold!”
Thomas Petronio, marketing manager, St. Ann's Community
Oakwood Village University Woods Campus, Madison, WI
While growing up in Casper, WY, Dee Buchler never doubted she could accomplish great things. She was inspired by her accomplished, well-educated parents.
“I always thought a woman could do anything she wanted to do,” Buchler says.
Around age 10, Buchler started thinking about a career in medicine. She had her eye on veterinary medicine. Later, thanks to some insightful guidance from her older brother’s wife, she ultimately decided human health was for her, and set out on what turned out to be a pioneering journey into specialized medicine.
Buchler discovered a small college in the Midwest where she studied chemistry and was active in athletics and student government. “I had a wonderful education at McMurray College near Springfield, IL,” Buchler says.
In 1962 she earned her M.D. from the Medical College of Pennsylvania. After an internship at the University of Kansas Medical Center she became interested in obstetrics and gynecologic oncology.
“I started working with a radiation oncologist at the University of Kansas, when that field was just beginning. And the field of gynecologic oncology didn’t even exist then. A few months later, the department chair suggested I consider staying in academia, and he asked if I wanted to combine the 2 careers, cancer in females and radiation oncology. So, I took 2 fellowships. At that point, my brother asked my dad, ‘Do you think she’s ever going to go to work?’ My dad said, ‘Oh, she’ll go to work eventually,’” Buchler recalls with a laugh.
In 1969, Buchler moved to the University of Wisconsin Medical School where she was a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and human oncology, and built the gynecologic oncology division.
“Madison was a great opportunity to get all the people together and build that division,” she says. “I did radical pelvic surgery and radiation oncology for gynecology. And it just grew. When you go to build a division of anything you really learn about yourself.”
Since retiring in 1995 at 60, Buchler has enjoyed the fruits of her labor. She volunteered with Oakwood and with organizations like the YWCA. And she has traveled internationally with her friends. “At 80 I stopped traveling. It gets tough to travel,” Buchler notes.
Six years ago, she moved to Oakwood Village Prairie Ridge. “It’s a wonderful place to live,” she says. “You are independent but have people around you and plenty of social opportunities. My floor has a weekly chat session where we get together and talk, and there are a ton of programs. It’s more than you can do really.”
With a notable career of treating cancer and teaching students behind her, Buchler now turns to philanthropy to help organizations that are dear to her or shaped her, including the Dane County Humane Society, MacMurray College and the Oakwood Foundation. Some might call her a trailblazer for the pioneering work she did in medicine. “But for me, it was my job.”
Beth Johnson, marketing representative, Oakwood Village University Woods Campus.
Ted Rose was born in Long Island City, NY, in 1931. Growing up, he frequently went to matinees enjoying most of the greatest Broadway shows ever made. He would buy the soundtrack and though he didn’t read music, he played keyboard by ear making it natural for him to absorb Broadway and all it represented.
At Queens College, Rose’s initial major was math, but he eventually focused on Spanish and French. Later, connections at International House, home to many worldwide visiting workers, Rose netted an award to spend a year in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but there were 2 catches. He had to teach English (and he just knew he would hate teaching), and he had to learn Portuguese. By the time he returned in 1954, he was fluent in Portuguese and he realized he loved teaching. Rose later taught in the prestigious Forest Hills Schools until 1959.
Through a family friend, Rose got an interview at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The entire one-hour interview was conducted in Portuguese. The result was a 3-year appointment as assistant professor teaching Spanish, Portuguese, and teacher training. In addition, Ted taught a high school class in Madison. After another 3 years as associate professor, Rose was appointed to a full professorship with tenure.
While conducting a how-to-teach class in 1967, Rose became friends with one of his brightest students. Upon completion of the class she returned to Sioux City to teach the required year of her program. A year later, this single mother and her 14-year-old son moved to Madison. Annie enrolled son Jeffrey in boarding school, and she began teaching Spanish in the Madison schools and enjoyed her hobby as an accomplished artist. Annie and Ted began dating.
In late winter of 1968, Rose asked for and secured a 3-month sabbatical. He casually asked Annie if she would like to go with him. She firmly said no. Single women didn’t do that sort of thing. Just as casually, Ted said, “O.K., Let’s get married.” Annie just as casually agreed. Their honeymoon was a 3-month trip around the world. It was the beginning of a beautiful 46-year marriage. Annie’s son Jeffrey and Ted bonded, making a close-knit family.
When Annie developed Alzheimer’s, Ted did not hesitate to become her full-time caregiver. Compass Point offered exactly what they needed. Annie has moved to memory care and Ted has stayed in their apartment, filled to the brim with things collected during their 46 years as well as many of Annie’s paintings.
Why would Ted want to move? Every time his eyes rest on an item with its special memory attached, or admires one of her paintings, he feels particularly close to his beloved Annie.
Bobbie Mueller, resident, Village on the Square
The Summit at First Hill (Kline Galland), Seattle, WA
Whether dancing at the annual Seniors’ Senior Prom (hosted by millennial volunteers from Temple de Hirsch Sinai), petting wallabies at a local ranch or just chatting at one of the areas countless coffee shops, residents of The Summit at First Hill are always engaged by a variety of interactive opportunities.
In November, The Summit unveiled its newest program—a portrait series of residents titled, “Faces of The Summit.” The exhibit was planned as an activity that would showcase the incredible experiences of residents and honor their stories. The program captured professional portraits of more than 20 residents and displayed them on the walls. Each is accompanied by a personal reflection—be it on aging, an experience growing up and/or recollection of days gone by. Some of these reflections are deeply heartfelt, some are lighthearted, and some are simply heartbreaking.
Through this exhibit, Rose Liberman told her story about how surviving the Holocaust has impacted the person she is today. “We were taken on black buses to the city of Oberlustadt and the concentration camp that was there. I never saw my family again,” says Liberman. “I have been asked how I keep such a positive outlook. Through the years I have tried to keep smiling no matter how hard life gets.”
Anne Mezistrano Hirschhorn’s story mentions her first job at the Seattle Public Library, “As a 14-year-old I was shelving books for 25 cents an hour.” Bill Berley tells how his love of art has helped him eliminate assumptions, “When I look at a piece of art it opens my mind to different ideas.”
These are but a few examples of the stories currently on display in the lobby of The Summit. This exhibit has been such a success that it was recently covered in an article from The Seattle Times.
Dick Rosenwald, communications director, Kline Galland.
LiveWell, Plantsville, CT
At LiveWell (formerly the Alzheimer’s Resource Center), we believe that persons living with dementia are not simply recipients of care, but designers of their life experience, and serve as educators as to how to combat stigmas about aging and dementia, engage communities through inclusive models of social action, and empower the unique voice of all members of society. This is the work of 6 members of the Dementia Peer Coalition: Lori Castellani, Pat Murphy, Tricia Pearce, Roger Rasch, Peter Robertson and Bob Savage.
Their innovative efforts through To Whom I May Concern® (TWIMC)—created by Maureen Matthews in 2006 to provide individuals living with dementia with a creative platform to share their stories—are dynamically changing the dialogue about living well with dementia in community, and served as a launching point for Connecticut Dementia Friendly Initiatives and the newly formed Dementia Peer Coalition. They demonstrate unequivocally that persons living with dementia are the experts in their own experience, fundamentally shifting how aging service providers offer training and education.
The Dementia Peer Coalition has performed in front of audiences at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT, Connecticut’s Area Agencies on Aging, and Quinnipiac University. Sharing their unique and collective experiences around living with dementia, and finding ways to adapt and live well, each storyteller gives voice to their challenges and hopes through courage, vulnerability, and wit.
The Dementia Peer Coalition, conceived and formed by Savage and Stephani Shivers (a 2017 Larry Minnix Leadership Academy Fellow), already has further engagements planned and works in conjunction with Dementia Friendly Initiatives and day service opportunities as pioneered by LiveWell. The Dementia Peer Coalition is eager to continue their work and serve as advocates for the full integration and inclusion of persons living with dementia in their communities. As voiced during their performance, “We HOPE to stand with you and by you, as we do for each other.”
Daniel Belonick, director of counseling services, LiveWell.
Winter Growth, Columbia, MD
Anne Berk celebrated her 99th birthday in November by expertly kicking her leg in a line of middle school dancers from Notre Dame Prep School. This was quite fitting, as she is the oldest living Radio City Rockette.
Since 1936, when she got her start as a Rockette, Anne has been dancing, teaching, and choreographing musicals. She retired just a decade ago at the age of 88. For 20 years, she ran a children’s dance school, and later taught seniors at Leisure World and other venues throughout Montgomery County, MD. Her senior dancers were, appropriately, known as the “Rockettes of Ages.”
The children and seniors in her classes gave over 300 performances at senior centers, nursing homes, hospitals, military bases, schools and even the Kennedy Center. During her final year of teaching, a 60 Minutes crew filmed her classes and interviewed her for a segment about the Rockettes. Today, she reminisces: “I’ve truly had a wonderful life—doing what I love for almost every moment of it.”
Anne credits her sense of humor for her longevity and ability to smile through good times and bad. In recent years, she’s made so many ambulance trips to area hospitals that she is on a first-name basis with the EMTs; and, as they would tell you, Anne will joke with anyone, under any conditions. As she was leaving the hospital on one occasion, for instance, she quipped “I guess nobody ‘up there’ wants me and nobody ‘down there’ wants me, so I’ll just go home and stick around for a while.”
Anne lived in her own apartment in Leisure World for 26 years until February 2017, when she moved to Winter Growth Assisted Living in Columbia, MD to be closer to her family. She loves the social life and activities there and became fast friends with many of the residents. Ever the Rockette, she even led a 4th of July parade through the hallways wearing her signature gold top hat with fellow residents following along to a spirited rendition of her favorite song, “New York, New York.”
Ron Berk, son of Anne Berk.
Saint Mary’s East, Erie, PA
A lifelong resident of Erie, Dolores Jones has seen the city change over the years. She graduated high school during the middle of World War II. As a result of increasing male enlistment at the time, she and many other women across the country entered the industrial work force to help from home.
“During the war, the factories needed help everywhere they could get it,” Jones explains. “Places were hiring all over. I didn’t even really think about it. I just went to work!”
Jones was one of the main providers for her family, as she had lost her father as a young girl and her brother was serving overseas in the Army at the time. “It was my mother, my sister and me. We needed the money and I was able to help. I don’t think I even made a dollar an hour, but everything I got I took home to my mother,” Jones says. She worked at Erie City Iron Works, welding together parts and boilers that would be used for American ships and vessels. “These parts were huge, some of them took up the whole room!” she says. The family did not have a car at the time, so every day she walked 2 miles to work and 2 miles back with her lunch pail in hand.
Because the hours were long, and some days were more tiring than others, Jones didn’t do too much for fun at the time, but she worked hard supporting both her family and her country. She explained, “I had never done that type of work before, but I really enjoyed it. It was kind of fun to just have to give your head a shake and your helmet would drop down and you could start welding.”
Jones was one of quite a few women working at Erie City Iron Works. “Coming right out of high school I may have been one of the younger ones, but there were plenty of women working. Some were married, some had boyfriends and husbands in the service, others were like me. We all did what we could,” Jones says.
She didn’t know it at the time, but her husband-to-be was serving overseas while she was serving at home. They met upon his return to Erie and married not long after. Jones never fully returned to work, but instead worked to raise her family. “You probably wouldn’t find many people who would do that kind of work, but I would again,” Jones says, as she looked at the picture of her younger self, “those were some of the good old days.”
Emma Toner, marketing & development assistant, Saint Mary’s Home of Erie.
CJE SeniorLife, Chicago, IL
Volunteers play an integral role in CJE’s Home-Delivered Meals program (HDM). Husband/wife duo Alan and Carol Greene, who’ve been delivering meals for the past couple years, develop one-on-one relationships with clients and check in to gauge the status of their well-being.
The HDM delivers the nutritious meals, friendly visits, and vital safety checks that enable seniors throughout greater metropolitan Chicago to live nourished lives with independence and dignity.
Robert S., a client of the program, says, “CJE has been bringing meals to me for 11 years. I’m healthy and I’m grateful for that. I eat well. It is a good variety, and everything is portioned out just right!”
“It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s a way of having a wellness check, just to see that they came to get the food and they appear to be okay,” says Alan Greene. “The best thing is meeting the people and getting to know them.” Carol Green adds, “I’ve really enjoyed the experience. It’s fun to see the people week after week, and I think they look forward to seeing us.”
It’s safe to say Robert S. enjoys their visits too: “They’ve been wonderful. They come in with a smile and they leave with a smile, and I’m always so thankful.”
CJE’s HDM program, in operation for more than 30 years, helps to reduce the food insecurity of low-income, homebound seniors in Chicago. Seniors rely on this program because many have difficulty paying for groceries and are physically and/or cognitively unable to shop and cook for themselves. Fresh, nutritious home-delivered meals are delivered by HDM staff and volunteers.
Hear more from CJE’s Home-Delivered Meals volunteers Alan and Carol Greene and client Robert S. in the video below:
Nicole Bruce, senior digital marketing specialist, CJE SeniorLife.
Thanks to the many LeadingAge members who wrote the stories included in this article. To contribute more stories of diverse, remarkable elders—and the staff, board members and volunteers who serve them—contact Editor Gene Mitchell at GMitchell@LeadingAge.org or 202-508-9424.