“I didn’t want to come here,” said Bill Woessner, referring to Brightview Assisted Living Community in Great Falls.
“That’s right,” agreed Sheila, his wife of more than 50 years, with plenty of her native Scottish brogue to be heard in her voice. “He really didn’t. We have a lovely house here in Great Falls and I don’t think he was ready to budge. But how long after we got here did that change?” she turned to her husband and asked.
“At least a day,” he laughingly replied. “Seriously,” said Bill Woessner, “it probably wasn’t more than the first forty-eight hours.”
What changed his mind, especially after what many would call a major life-upheaval?
“The food!” was his answer. “We have gourmet food at every meal, served by the nicest people in the most beautiful surroundings, and we never have to cook it or clean up afterwards.”
According to Sheila, while the food really is that good, what probably impacted her husband’s initial attitude was “the amazing staff, the friendly and interesting residents, and the freedom. Of course, we’re retired, so we’re not bound to the responsibilities of work.” But neither are the Woessners bound to home maintenance concerns, housekeeping, cooking and cleaning ...
Or “shoveling snow, like we would have been doing last month if we weren’t right here,” gloated Bill. “We have the time to do what we like, to try new things and meet new people, without that worry.”
Bill and Sheila Woessner chatted about their experiences as residents in a senior living community with friends and fellow residents Porta Nickles and Sophia Coulopoulos, over lunch in the Brightview dining room.
Porta Nickles, who is 99, admitted to a bit of a sweet tooth. “My father owned a candy and ice cream shop in upstate New York,” she said, recommending the homemade coffee ice cream for dessert.
The ice cream is made using the recipe of the area’s beloved Thelma Feighery. Brightview is built on the site of Thelma’s Ice Cream, once the hotspot for local gathering in Great Falls. Thelma and her husband Frank started with a gas station on the site in 1950. Thelma took over and served her own recipe ice creams and other goodies after Frank’s death in 1988, until her own in 2001.
Long-time Great Falls resident Sheila Woessner said she used to go to Thelma’s “just to catch up on all the local doings” even though she’s not one for sweet treats. “I think Thelma would be pleased. Not only do we have our own “Thelma’s” on site and make ice cream to her specifications, but it’s still the place for us to gather and keep up with what’s going on.”
Porta Nickles came to Brightview after living the last 70 years in Middletown, New York, where she helped run the family’s Coney Island hot dog franchise, and later went on to enjoy a career in education with the local school district. Having lived somewhere that long, it’s understandable that the move took some adjusting to, but Nickles found herself comfortable and more than content in short order. “I was lonely there,” she said. “And I didn’t even know how lonely until I got here, starting making new friends, finding out there were so many things I could still do and learn and enjoy. And now I get to see my kids, grandkids and great-grand kids.”
“And so do we all,” added Bill Woessner. The youngsters in Porta’s extended family (many of whom live close by) are favorites at family related social events held at Brightview, holidays, birthdays, and some “just because” occasions. Having family nearby, the visits, and having opportunities designed to promote interaction with different age groups, all help make Brightview a home environment in the estimation of this group of residents.
The Brightview Great Falls location has only been open since September of last year. Sophia Coulopoulos, who had lived for several years in the Maryland suburbs around the District, actually came here from another area community, where she lived with her ill husband until his death. Speaking of him caused a quick smile, but also brought a hint of tears. Porta on her one side and Brightview Community Sales Director Joanna Banks seated on her other side, were immediately offering hugs, pats, and encouragement.
“Get involved and take advantage of your time,” was Sheila Woessner’s advice for new residents.
Sheila Woessner has always been a game player “and she knows the words to every song going,” Porta Nickles said in admiration.
During her days with the British Information Services in New York City with Bill, Sheila Woessner took home some hefty prize money by playing on the televised “Name that Tune” game show, money that she used to finance their wedding. The couple even appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Who Do You Trust?” game show. Nowadays, Sheila uses her ability to help out at the community’s sing-a-longs.
Many activities are organized and facilitated by Brightview’s Vibrant Living Director, Josh Graf.
Bingo is Sophia’s favorite. She’s been pretty lucky, winning often enough to splurge with her earned Brightview “bucks” at the monthly “gift shop” where you never know what interesting items might be on offer.
Brightview Great Falls is part of Baltimore-based Brightview Senior Living, LLC with a number of communities in Virginia, Maryland and beyond. Brightview Great Falls offers independent living, assisted living, and accommodations for residents with Alzheimer's and memory impairment. The community also offers outdoor space with unspoiled views and a Natural Wildlife Habitat accreditation.
Transitioning to senior community living is not always as easy as the lunch bunch at Brightview experienced. Sometimes the move starts with heartache or circumstances that speed up what should be a more lengthy and considered process. That was certainly the case for both Jim Draper and Rachel Garbee, residents at The Hermitage in Alexandria.
Draper was a pastor for many years in the southern portions of the Commonwealth. He and his wife of 53 years were actually engaged in ministerial duties when she fell and hit her head. “It was a simple fall outside a Wendy’s, could happen to anyone.” Two weeks later, Draper was a widower. He continued on, but experienced several medical episodes associated with his own health issues. Eventually, the decision was made for him to move to Northern Virginia, close to family. “It’s been hard,” he admits. I really had my heart set on a retirement place near Richmond. And I miss my wife so much.” To make the transition more difficult, because of his medical condition, Draper can no longer drive. “That’s a real blow,” he said.
Rachel Garbee was living in North Carolina and “doing pretty good.” Then one night her furnace exploded. Living alone, she had no one with her to handle the situation. “It was very scary. I didn’t really know what had happened, couldn’t figure out how to turn off the alarms. I went to my neighbors for help and that’s when we found out about the furnace.” Luckily, Rachel Garbee and her home survived the experience, but when her son received the call in the middle of the night, “I was packed up pretty quickly and here I am.”
Both Jim Draper and Rachel Garbee have taken some time to adjust, but things are getting better with the help of staff like Lynette Mitchell, The Hermitage Director of Marketing and Outreach. “She’s a special lady,” said Draper, “really made for the job.” Other residents have also helped Jim, Rachel, and others settle in to this new phase of their lives.
Gladys Laclede knows what it’s like to be a “newbie” from out of state. Moving here to be closer to her sons, she offers support and assistance where she can.
Peg Bixler remembers when Jim Draper first arrived. “I remember when we met in the elevator,” she told him. “I could tell it was hard.” She recalls telling him to just “Wait a bit. It does get easier.”
Of course, by the description of her daily activities, it sounds like Peg Bixler doesn’t have much time for waiting. A former nurse, she volunteers at the Kennedy Center, with the Wounded Warrior and Honors Flight Projects, and more. She also fits in some serious walking to keep fit and limber, as well as activities offered at The Hermitage and visits with her daughter who lives in the area. Peg is grateful that she is still in good health and still able to be “a fairly quick walker.”
She tilts her head at friend Bea Larson, who is laughing that Peg “nearly finished me off” when she took Bea for their first few walks together.
Rachel Garbee also walks, but mostly sticks to Hermitage hallway strolls, often in the evenings after dinner. “It’s quiet then, and where else could I take a walk in my pajamas, bathrobe and slippers?”
The Hermitage offers its residents a number of activities and amenities, although Peg, Bea and Gladys think that more people should take advantage of what’s on offer. Gladys Laclede was on the community’s activities committee and they were always on the lookout for something new and fun to get the residents involved.
Peg Bixler offered advice to those who might have such a move coming in the future. “Get rid of a lot of stuff as soon as you can. Don’t wait. And do what you can to make it easier on your kids.” Bixler thought she had done a good job of downsizing before the move, but still found herself “with a lot of stuff I just don’t need.”
Rachel Garbee encourages other “newbies” to not be afraid to ask questions or ask for help, especially if your move to senior community living is an abrupt one like hers.
“All of my questions and concerns have been met with nothing but genuine care and helpfulness here.”
“Be open,” is what Gladys Laclede advises.
Pastor Jim Draper, who has started using more of his time to help others in need around the community, thinks just speaking to everybody and actively looking for friendship is key to making the most of this next life chapter.
Bea Larson certainly hasn’t lost her sense of humor with her new living arrangements. “My advice,” she said, “is don’t be hard of hearing!”
Col. James McAllan (US Army Ret.) and his wife Linda, who retired from an administrative career with the IRS, started their research on retirement living options six years ago. As you would expect from a military intelligence officer (Army, Civil Defense/FEMA) and a woman who made order and efficiency part of her life’s work, these two had a plan and a checklist of requirements. While living in Falls Church, they visited dozens of communities over the years.
“We didn’t want one of the really big places,” said Col. McAllan. “We were looking for someplace with a diverse population and where we could comfortably remain, even if our health circumstances changed.” The couple also decided they would prefer a community that was locally owned, and better still, locally managed. Their extensive research and personal inspections eventually took them to The Woodlands Retirement Community in Fairfax. “It checked all the boxes.”
The community is, in fact, locally founded and operated by the Bainum family. The size fits for the McAllans, as well, with only 102 units. The Woodlands is also what is known as a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), meaning that residents can avail of a lifetime range of care, from the independent living that the McAllan’s now enjoy, to more assisted living through to advanced nursing care without having to uproot and move to a completely new community.
The McAllans hadn’t planned to move in when they did. “My knees really made that decision for us,” said James. But once they decided, they found that only one apartment was currently available. Not wanting to risk a long encampment on the waiting list, they went ahead and closed the deal on their two bedroom, 2.5 bath apartment with separate kitchen, dining room and den. Their daughter, who lives just minutes away, told them it was “all meant to be.” And the icing on the cake was that The Woodlands would accept the other member of the immediate family – 4 yr-old shih tzu Riley, who has been dubbed “The Mayor” by many of the other residents. Riley is not particularly fond of the only other four-legged community dweller, but he adores visiting – and being properly fussed over by – residents, staff, and visitors.
“Coming down to the lobby is his favorite activity,” said Linda. “I think he fakes some of his requests for his outside needs,” she added, “since half the time when we get down here he suddenly finds plenty of time to check out whoever is around.”
The Woodlands offers physical and entertainment activities, including an indoor heated pool and a well-equipped exercise room, but Linda noted that the variety of groups, clubs, lectures and discussions available.
“We’ve had the first Ambassador to Israel as a speaker, a violinist who spent forty years with the Washington Opera orchestra, a retired opera singer, and so many more, in addition to book clubs, poetry clubs, gardening,” Linda McAllan said. A presentation by the authors of “Worry Free Retirement Living” was on the March schedule, and “Aging Well: Aging is Not a Spectator Sport” is on the April agenda. The McAllans also like that co-founder and manager Kevin Bainum holds monthly “Kevin Talks.” There are other regular town hall-type meeting and several councils or committees, but in Mr. McAllan’s words, it’s “this kind of relaxed, open communication that really brings us all together.”
Betty Marshall, whose apartment is frequently used as a stop on any tour of The Woodlands, couldn’t agree more with her neighbors, the McAllans. A Fairfax resident for more than 25 years, Marshall, who was born on Cyprus when her South Carolinian mom followed her father to his native Greece for a time, has also seen a bit of the world thanks to her husband’s military postings in Alaska, Okinawa, Greece and Paris. Like the McAllans, Betty did quite a bit of planning for this move. When her husband, Col. Charles Marshall (Ret) died in 2013, she put those plans into action. Picking which pieces to take with her from a lifetime of international travel wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be. Of course, Marshall, a music major who taught the instrument wherever the couple went, couldn’t leave the piano behind. Nor could she leave her favorite furnishings and artwork, many of them from her Okinawa days.
When not busy with activities outside of The Woodlands world like volunteering at the Fair Oaks Hospital gift shop or heading up the Flower Guild at the Providence Presbyterian Church, Betty is involved with the goings on in her own community. “And the people here make it easy on every level.” Betty sings the praises of the maintenance and facilities staff, in particular. “They are so willing to do anything you need. Hang a picture, move furniture, fix anything. They even prepare the plots for us gardeners. I just have to get out there and do the planting.” Of course, she does reward them with the fruits of their combined labor. “Zucchini bread for everyone this year!”
Having learned flower arranging, Betty teaches those skills as well as crafting to interested residents. She’s also organizing an eastern Caribbean cruise for a group of residents and family members. The Woodlands staff will be handling the transportation to and from Baltimore when the travelers embark on their sea-faring adventure.
“I would just tell people to never look back,” Marshall said. “Keep the memories, they are what made you. But your life is today and tomorrow. Keep looking ahead. Plan. And find a place where you can really thrive.”
If it’s time to start contemplating the transition to senior independent or assisted living for yourself or a loved one (and folks like the McAllans and Betty Marshall suggest that it’s a good idea to start that planning well in advance) sorting through the information and the available properties and options can seem overwhelming. Focus on the fact that it’s a good thing that people in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland have such a large pool of quality communities to choose from. There are properties that resemble four-star resorts. There are communities that are extensions of a particular faith institution or religion. Others, like non-profit Vinson Hall in McLean were founded to serve our large commissioned military officers population and government workers of equal rank. There are properties set in rural locations, while others like The Jefferson, a Sunrise Senior Living community located steps away from the Ballston Metro and Ballston Common Mall in Arlington, are set right in the thick of things. There are communities offering every possible range of care, service and amenities in all price ranges.