Closed Doors Create Unlikely Cheer at The Gardens at St. Elizabeth

Imagine finding yourself outside on a warm windy evening in your folding chair, masked and seated 6 feet from a stranger who has just asked you to catalog what your community lost on March 17, 2020:

Dining room – closed
Picking up mail from the mailroom – suspended
Activities – canceled
Visitors – none
Chairs in the common areas – gone
Laundry room – by appointment
Music groups, exercise class, Chaplain’s book group – on hold

Visiting with Irene Guthrie
Photo by Kathryn White

I sat with Irene Guthrie not long after residents at The Gardens at St. Elizabeth were allowed to have visitors again—but outdoors, with precautions. Irene grew up in North Denver and four years ago moved with her husband into The Gardens. They’re now about halfway between the home where they raised their family and the grade school where they met.

The Gardens, a retirement community connected to Catholic Health Initiatives, sits along 32nd Avenue across the street from Denver North High School. On March 17th, amid increasing concerns about the risks of COVID-19 for older adults, all 150 residents at The Gardens were told they would have to stay in their rooms. Melissa Santistevan, marketing director, had a list much like Irene’s, punctuated at the end with “We worry about the isolation. We worry a lot about this.”

Management adjusted nearly every aspect of the community’s daily rhythm. They brainstormed with similar communities to devise new COVID-19 safe activities. From this sprang Take-Out Tuesdays, Doorway BINGO, and a host of pastimes leveraging—you guessed it—Zoom, iPads and Disney+.

The morning after I met Irene, a message came through on my phone. “Kathryn, I’ve thought of a few more things we lost all at one time. There’s a chapel here on the property and many people move here because there’s Mass every day. That was canceled. And then the beauty shop. We can’t get haircuts anymore.”

But Irene hadn’t agreed to meet with me because of all The Gardens lost. As we sat in the warm wind that evening, Irene pulled little slips of paper and pieces of take-out containers out of her canvas tote bag. She smiled, her voice lightening, as she explained each one. Irene wanted to tell me about a young woman named Liberty.

Nana and Liberty Petropoulos
Jan Pelton Photography

Nana and Liberty Petropoulos, mother and daughter, work at The Gardens. Their jobs changed dramatically on March 17th, although I could see in their faces via Zoom that they handled it with grace and flexibility. Nana administers medication for assisted living residents. She loves the sense of purpose she feels supporting and bringing joy to people as they age. When residents could no longer leave their rooms, Nana and the entire care team tuned more deeply into their social and spiritual needs.

While Nana has worked at The Gardens for over 20 years, her daughter Liberty is a newcomer. She started during her sophomore year at Denver North HS, where she’s now a senior. Liberty’s job in the dining room became a meal delivery service. She was used to greeting residents and chatting with them while serving meals. Now she hangs meal bags on a little hook attached to a closed door. She misses the residents.

The dining services job, Liberty described, has turned out to be much more than the typical “restaurant job.” Residents at The Gardens are happy to talk and listen and share about their lives. And they’ve lived some amazing adventurous lives, lives of great depth. “Residents here,” Liberty reflected, “they make you nicer, softer. They make your heart warmer.” Nana nodded in agreement.

And so, when the dining services crew noticed little traced drawings coming from Irene on her daily menu slips, Liberty joined co-workers Sierra Choruzy, Mario Chairez and Alexia Guadian in sending cheerful messages and drawings back to Irene, and now others, on the lids of take-out containers. What started as giraffes drawn with ballpoint pens turned into elaborate creations when Andy Padilla, activities coordinator, pitched in with a set of special markers.

A tender and extended exchange of drawings, notes, and moral support unfolded between Liberty and Irene. Irene has even displayed some on her door. Memories of this exchange will, perhaps, stand out in colorful relief against the backdrop of loss.

During our visit, Irene took out a small notepad where she had collected some thoughts. It appeared she had a second list, this one had to do with the drawings and notes from Liberty; it included words like “upbeat” and “cheerful” and “original”. Irene has spent a lot of her life building community in North Denver. Nana has too. And now, so too is Liberty.


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