Nursing home activity director becomes characters on stage

Dressing up is just part of a typical day for activities director Julie Schwab at Good Samaritan Society – Sunset Drive in Mandan, North Dakota.

“My pirate voice isn’t as good as other voices. It’s just, ‘Arrgh! You salty dog!’” Julie says before donning a tricorn hat and pirate costume.

Stealing residents’ and co-workers’ hearts for the past 19 years in Mandan, Julie is an anchor for many at the long-term care center.

“Oh, Julie is great. I have seen her in so many costumes,” resident Delores Poling says laughing.

There's a specific goal behind all the effort.

“I think a lot of people do think you just come to a nursing home and that’s it. You’re done,” Julie says. “We just want them to be involved in activities enhancing their lives."

Residents are currently marooned on pirate week but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“She is one that will definitely go above and beyond in everything she does,” Society administrator Kelly VanderVorste says. “She becomes the character when she does her little impersonations."

'She is magnanimous'

Developing characters such as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Julie speaks with an accent and even puts on a few concerts.

“She can sing like an angel,” Delores says.

At Christmas time, she turns into a 4-year-old and visits residents with Santa.

In an energetic, childlike voice, Julie hollers, “Hi, my name is Mavis Ann and I live across the street and I have a mom and daddy and I’m so glad to be here. I get to celebrate Christmas with my grandmas and grandpas. Thank you so much for inviting me."

“Even staff are like, ‘Oh Mavis Ann is here.’ Because you can hear me all the way down (the hall)."

Silly stuff, but co-workers say it lights up the building in a special way.

“I just wish that for every skilled nursing facility, for people to have a Julie,” Sandi Martire, Society speech-language pathologist, says. “She is magnanimous. Julie does things that you wouldn’t expect.

“It could even bring tears to my eyes talking about her."

Sandi says her patients improve after Julie’s activities.

“She knows all about how to keep them healthy and bring out the best in them in very unique ways,” Sandi says. “We’re all working together, and it all looks fun on the surface but underneath we’re meeting all the sensory needs of the patients."

'A marvelous place'

Always upbeat, residents say Julie puts on great programs.

“It’s a relaxing, fun time. You forget everything,” Delores says.

Hard to believe but Julie’s found her voice. It’s impacting lives for the better.

“Actually, before this job I was very, very quiet. Very shy,” Julie says. “It’s just so much fun and the residents just have a ball with it.

“A boring activity is a boring activity. Who wants to come to that?”

An administrator for three years, Kelly can spend more time ensuring residents are getting quality care knowing Julie is leading activities.

“It’s amazing to have somebody like that here and not have to even think about the activity department because you know it’s just being taken care of,” Kelly says.

Life at this nursing home is treasured.

“It’s not the end. It’s just another part. It’s another season. I think activities guides that and helps that along,” Julie says.

“That’s my heart and hope that we can just make their lives better in this last season. Or, in a season with therapy that they’re here and going home later."

Delores, who's lived at Sunset Drive for three years, adds, “We have everything that we need and it’s just a marvelous place."

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