Thoughts of, and with, Carefree

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
Pull into the parking lot. Punch the code. Open the door and walk through the dining area. Take a left down the hallway to my grandma Dolly’s door.
For about four months last year, it became a regular and familiar drill.
And it was my first and lasting experience with Ely’s Carefee Living.
Often armed with a strawberry shake for 95-year-old Dolly and sometimes bringing a sundae for her sister-in-law and my great aunt Marcella, stops at the southern-most building in the community’s assisted living complex were part of my routine.
Hollee and the kids would make weekend visits, but during the week I had the responsibility - and now I remember it as a privilege - to spend some quality time as my grandma reached the end of her time with us.
It also was an opportunity to get a first hand look at Carefree and meet its residents and staff. Other than an occasional photo opportunity for the Echo, I wasn’t all that familiar with the facility and my understanding was largely limited to anecdotal offerings and what I learned when writing news reports about its start-up in town. That changed quickly in 2019.
Dolly’s time there was brief - just over four months with a 10-day hospital stay in the middle - but it was fulfilling and in many ways rewarding.
Make no mistake about it, the stubborn Slovenian wanted nothing less than to live out her days at her cherished, beautiful home with the impeccable yard on top of the hill at Eighth and Conan, and she missed that only by four months.
She begrudgingly adjusted and soon began looking out for and worrying about a whole different group of people - her newfound friends at Carefree.
Some she knew from days gone by in Ely, dating as far back as her time in school in the 1930s or her work at Zup’s the following decade. Others, particularly some of the guys, were former customers of my grandpa, who operated a barber shop out of his home until only months before is passing.
Marcella, who would leave us earlier this year, provided a daily link with family and a devoted companion.
Down the hall was the Reverend Al, who often joined the ladies for dinner and dazzled them with his wit. I remembered Al largely from his days watching his Omerza grandsons play baseball and basketball, but thanks to last year I’ll now always remember him as the “The Preacher of Carefree.”
Meal time at Carefree is an event. It was clear early on that some residents of Dolly’s building were creatures of habit, and many sat in their familiar chairs, day after day.
They mingled, some stuck around to watch TV or a movie, while especially on weekends it was common to see family members joining them for visits.
Those were especially heartwarming days.
As a parent, I’ve learned how much it means to miss your kids and how often one takes pride in them.
At Carefree, it was evident that those feelings don’t evaporate once you reach your 80s or 90s. If anything, they grow stronger and visits by family members usually produced smiles, made that day’s maladies at least temporarily subside and were obvious moments of brightness for those who resided in Dolly’s building.
It was also soon clear what makes Carefree hum - the efforts of a too often unappreciated staff.
There are reasons why our elderly arrive at Carefree and for most it’s a final stop, not a temporary respite.
Time, age, illness or just the wearing down of once reliable body parts make its residents heavily reliant on a dedicated staff.
Some need help with what might be thought of as the simplest of tasks. Others are less dependent but all rely on the assistance, and the companionship, of those who work at Carefree.
They push wheel chairs, help residents in and out of bed. They give baths, aid with showers and changing and meals. And perhaps most of all, they listen and provide comfort when familiar faces are nowhere to be found. Their pay doesn’t come close to matching the value they provide.
Dolly waxed poetically about a favorite nurse who wrapped her ailing legs just right. She worried incessantly about overworked staff who logged double-shift after double-shift. “When do they have time to rest? This isn’t an easy job,” Dolly told me on more than one occasion.
As she reached the final two weeks of her life, Dolly had trouble sleeping at night and one June evening she told me all about her many hours of conversation the evenning before with a midnight shift aide - as they talked about everything from family and history to departed relatives and impending funeral plans.
Dolly’s last 48 hours remain a blur but memories are crystal clear in the time after she passed. So many staff members and fellow residents consoled us. Their words and hugs genuine. It was as if they lost a family member, and in many ways they did.
It was only fitting that one of Dolly’s last wishes was that the staff and residents at Carefree “get a good meal” and our family arranged just that a couple days after she passed. Chicken, mashed potatoes, potica. It was quite obvious Dolly thought of her Carefree friends as family as well.
A little over a year later, Carefree has been on my mind a lot. First came the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and wonder about how residents could possibly adjust to restrictions that kept biological family members outside for months. I don’t know what we, or my grandma, would have done had COVID arrived a year earlier.
Thank goodness for the caring staff who have had to provide even more care, compassion and comfort since March.
More recently came rumors and anecdotes, and later confirmation, that the virus had come to the facility, with sad news this week that residents had passed away.
A drive by Carefree Wednesday brought back memories and sadness, and genuine concern for what’s occurring and yet to occur behind those walls.
Life has carried on since Dolly’s passing, as she would unquestionably have wished, and little would be served by bringing the community to a halt because of an outbreak at Carefree.
Yet that shouldn’t stop any of us from keeping the Carefree family close to our thoughts. And our hearts.