In their words: VHS residents share life stories for Skilled Nursing Care Week
It’s National Skilled Nursing Care Week (May 14-20)! We are spotlighting some of our VHS Residents at Virginia Health Services’ seven nursing and rehabilitation centers. Our team supports our Residents in living their best life as they age with us.
We appreciate their time and the time of their visiting families and friends who all were so open in telling their stories.
James Genus – or as we like to call him, Mr. G – has been at Coliseum Nursing and Rehabilitation Center since February 2021. He never misses an activity and always waves hello.
Originally from Rockville, Maryland, Mr. G was stationed at Fort Eustis after returning from flying for the Army in Vietnam. He served as a flight engineer for seven years in the Army, leaving as an E-5 in 1966.
It was while he was stationed at Fort Eustis that he met his wife. Even after struggling to find a job “as a Black man” in the area, they didn’t leave.
Instead he opened his own string of businesses, including a portable cleaning service.
“I learned I could make more money doing that than something in aviation (at that time),” he says.
Mr. G’s businesses brought in a lot of money and at its peak employed 40. His janitorial and environmental services businesses spanned several states, including Delaware and North Carolina, and they had contracts with several small colleges, he said.
“I never got a big head. Because it comes but you got a partner, and that partner’s the government. … I always stayed low-key, and I teach my son the same thing. He thanks me all the time,” he says.
Mr. G’s success translated to his son, also named James, though in a far different path. His son has played bass with the Saturday Night Live Band for about 20 years, and is also a freelance musician who has toured the world with Herbie Hancock.
He lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children. Also in Connecticut is Mr. G’s wife of 57 years, being cared for in a nursing home there following a stroke.
Mr. G has been to see his son perform on the set of “SNL” many times, he says, but couldn’t quite pinpoint a favorite host.
“I don’t know (who my favorite host was),” he says. “I was just there to see him.”
Making move from Middlesex to Hampton
Until Rosaline Burrell moved into Coliseum Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in August 2022, the only place she lived was Middlesex County.
She is now closer to her daughter, who lives in Hampton and comes to visit her daily.
She is 94 years old and has survived her husband and three of five children. One of her sons who passed away was her caregiver.
Rosaline and her husband were together for more than 70 years. He passed away in 2011 at age 93. She has three grandchildren. She worked alongside her husband, handling the finances of their landscape business for about 65 years before either retired.
“This was a big transition for her to leave her home and come here,” says her daughter Patricia. “We’ve not been back (to the Middlesex house).”
Rosaline enjoys the activities at Coliseum – she was looking forward to manicures this particular afternoon – and gets along well with her current roommate. She also enjoys watching TV – her favorite program is “Little House on the Prairie.”
She says “the help of the Lord” keeps her going.
Rosaline and Patricia know loss. Rosaline’s oldest son went missing without a trace from West Point 45 years ago.
Two sons passed away within months of one another.
“I wasn’t able to be there. (Patricia) took on everything about what was going on. She by both their sides when they died,” Rosaline said.
“God give her strength to do what she’s doing for me now.”
In addition to visits from Patricia, Rosaline has family who keep up with her, including a younger sister. She has frequent visitors and folks who keep in touch with her, including from the church in Middlesex.
Doris Scott has been in long-term care at James River Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for about 20 years.
“I’ve enjoyed myself so far. Not a dull moment,” she says, citing the robust activities calendar for keeping her active.
“You don’t do the same thing every day. It’s up to you if you want to enjoy it.”
She likes the church services, flower club on Fridays where the Residents arrange flowers with the Newport News Master Gardeners, and bingo. She has seek-and-find puzzles she enjoys doing between activities.
Doris was born and raised in Newport News, in the Newsome Park area. She and her mother moved farther north and she graduated from Carver High School.
“This is my home and this always will be my home,” she says.
She has a sister in Hanover who visits every other month. Occasionally Doris will spend a weekend with her “in the country.”
Patricia Davenport became a Resident of Lancashire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in August 2022, when she could no longer live independently.
“I like the people here,” she says, “but I miss my apartment and my cat. She’ll be 16 in October.”
She had a series of falls and hospital stays that have left her in physical therapy at Lancashire gaining her steadiness and ability to walk without a walker or wheelchair.
“They do very good here; I have no complaints,” she says.
Patricia has family who lives nearby, including two sisters. Another sister lives in Louisa.
She has a step-daughter in Florida, who is raising her step-great-granddaughters, and a stepson who lives in Texas. One of her sisters and brother-in-law are looking after her treasured cat Buttercup.
“I wouldn’t give her away to just anybody,” Patricia says with a smile. “I haven’t seen my cat since July of last year. I miss her so much.”
She keeps a stuffed kitty named Bella on her bed, and there are several photos of Buttercup in her room.
Lancaster County native
Patricia and her family are from Lancaster County, growing up in Bertrand.
Before moving to Richmond following her first marriage, Patricia worked in housekeeping at Lancashire. She returned to Kilmarnock to care for her mother in 2010 and stayed with her until her passing in 2018.
“When mom passed, the house was too big for me to live there by myself,” she says. She moved into an apartment that fall; her sister’s family and Buttercup occupy the family home now.
“I loved my apartment; I didn’t want to leave it.”
She worked in department stores, including Kmart and Kohl’s, and in a warehouse assembling hospital equipment, before returning to Kilmarnock where she worked in a now-closed department store’s catalog department.
“I enjoyed being around people. I loved in the catalog what to do. The people I worked for were real good to me,” she says. “I loved all the jobs I’ve had.”
Stylist living life at Lancashire
Ray Meyers moved to Lancashire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center about eight months ago. His sight is worsening due to a previous trauma and macular degeneration. Ray said he could no longer care for his Kilmarnock home alone, so he sold it and most of his possessions, gave away his dog and cat and moved to Lancashire, which is near his sister and her family.
“You bring what you can and sell the rest,” he says. “Overall, I’ve got three hots and a cot. The people here are fair.”
He enjoys the people at Lancashire and likes to kid around with the team to get them smiling and laughing.
“I don’t know of anybody who has lived a more fun life than I have,” Ray says.
Living the life
Since 1964 until his sight started to go, Ray cut hair.
“I was pretty good. I had the first unisex hair styling salon in Virginia. … I stole the idea. Guy (in Pennsylvania) had a great idea and didn’t know how to promote it,” he says.
He learned how to shampoo, cut and style hair, massage the scalp and be a nail technician. He trained his in entire team wherever he set up shop, which included northern Virginia.
“I went through quite a few dollars learning how to do a Farrah Fawcett haircut, a Dorothy Hamill haircut. We had to go through a lot of training to do these styles,” he says.
Ray also was a drummer.
He was married once for five years and engaged “four times with one ring.”
“I dated a lot of girls … but it was never so much about the catch as it was about the chase,” he says with a smile.
He lived in Alexandria while Vietnam was going on.
“I was prepared to go. My father was in the Marines, stepfather was in the Battle of the Bulge and brother was Army special forces, but as an asthmatic, they wouldn’t take me,” he says.
He moved to Kilmarnock in 2004 and started a business cutting hair. He’s originally from Shenandoah.
A trauma while he was robbed at gunpoint in his home led to some of the onset of his blindness.
He enjoyed hunting and fishing once he moved to Northern Neck.
Marie Collins, who will be 99 in August, has been a Resident at Northampton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center since February 2020. She’s comfortable, happy with the team members and rehab therapists, and pleased to not have to worry about grocery shopping, cooking or cleaning her space (though she does keep it tidy and dusts).
“I love it here,” she says. “I like the nurses. What more could we want?”
She has even acquiesced to play Bingo, which she says she didn’t enjoy before coming to Northampton.
Marie says it’s been difficult to outlive her friends. But, “here is where my life is now. But I just have acquaintances.”
She spent nearly 45 years of her life as a secretary, and then another 20 as a senior model in several campaigns and with community fashion shows. She spent much of her career in the U.S. Civil Service, retiring in 1986.
Her husband Jim was transferred to Ramstein Air Base in Germany after they met in Texas. She eventually traveled there and they were wed in Germany in 1956. Eventually, he was transferred back to Texas.
She tried to find a job, but was turned away because “you’re an Air Force wife. As soon as I train you, you’ll have to leave. So, I showed them. I joined the Civil Service.”
They were transferred to Hampton, and she took a job at Langley Air Force Base. The couple spent two years in Istanbul, Turkey.
“I loved it, but my husband didn’t. He was in JAG, working with the local police,” she says.
They returned stateside in 1968. Jim had two heart attacks. He was discharged from the Air Force, and the couple returned to Virginia.
Even after he passed in 1970, Marie stayed in Hampton. She spent the last 18 years of her Civil Service career at Langley.
“I never went back to Pennsylvania,” she says.
When her parents passed, she sold her half of the family farm in Hesston, Pennsylvania, back to her sister. Marie’s nephew and his wife live there now, and come visit about once a month when she goes to the doctor. They’re her remaining living family.
Her right knee started giving her trouble at 95. “Mother Nature decided it was time to slow me down.”
She wasn’t interested in getting a knee replacement at that age. After a bout with COVID, she moved into Northampton. It’s home now.
“If you’re going to live here, you’re going to make the most of it,” she said of decorating her single room as comfortable as possible.
The energy from Andre Hughes’ room radiates down the hall. Walter Reed team members and Residents wave or stop in to chat when they walk by.
She maintains several plants and has brightly patterned quilts on the walls.
“I enjoy taking care of them,” Andre says of the plants. “They’re good for me – they’re good for everyone. Plants are therapy for me. They are full of life and there’s so much darkness these days, I can watch these grow and thrive.”
Andre has been a Resident of Walter Reed for about 7 years. She’s found love and marriage while there. She’s made friends. And she’s recovered from the fall that landed her here, learning to walk and write again.
“These people are my family and this is my home,” she says. “I knew eventually I’d end up here. … And I think the Lord wants me here. I still have a lot of work to do.
“There are folks in here, where all you have to do is hold their hand and their face lights up. That’s a blessing for me. So the Lord is helping me help others … My faith has carried me.”
Born in France
“I am a product of World War II,” she says.
Andre was born in France. Her father, an American, had been stationed there and met her mother, whose family owned a café in which she worked. They were married and when he resettled in the U.S., Andre, her mother and two siblings joined him.
She was a physical therapy aide – “that was my last job. When I was very young, I worked for a radio station and the telephone company.”
Wedding at Walter Reed
While a series of events have left her without family, she has made a home at Walter Reed, including meeting her late husband.
“I’m friendly with everyone,” she says. “I met a wonderful man in here. We were married in here. They had the ceremony in the dining room – it looked like a winter wonderland.
“I knew he was very ill, but we wanted to be married in the eyes of the Lord. A minister performed the ceremony. The team and volunteers pooled money to get out marriage license. It was a joyous occasion. He’s in heaven now, waiting on me.”
They were married nine weeks. James passed away five years ago.
“He blessed me so much by putting James in my life. In here. I get blessed and I get blessed,” she says.
Love where you live
She is thankful for the team at Walter Reed, not only for helping plan a lovely wedding, but also for keeping the Residents active and engaged.
“I have an abundance of friends. (Recreational directors) Julie and Jennifer are the ones that hold this place together. They go shopping for us each week. They’ll help me find something to order online. They’re absolutely gifted in their personalities,” Andre says.
“It’s a good place to be. Right now, I can’t complain about my life because I know the Lord is leading me and guiding me.”
‘From the ashes, you can rise’
Mona Dennis started calling Walter Reed home since August 2022. She had to move from the assisted living she was at when the complex changed its business model.
She remembered how well she liked being at Walter Reed during a skilled stint in 2021 after having back surgery.
“I liked it very much. The nursing staff, everybody was so nice. I took an opportunity to come over here and here I am!” she says.
She had a very positive rehab experience at Walter Reed. But she says not much can be done for her back – she has spinal stenosis.
Mona has a walker that better fits her tall frame.
“It’s nice for tall people without having to bend over. It enables you to stand up straight. For me, it’s nice because as soon as I take hold, the pain stops,” she says. “It supports the spine and is a great relief for avoiding the pain.”
Loving her new home
“I’m 77 years old – I still have so much left,” Mona says.
Since she’s able to get around the facility with the help of her walker, she visits with fellow Residents. She also is a fan of the community pets – particularly the rabbit and the fish.
“You’re going to find people in all stages here. … Try to talk with people, let them know somebody cares. They look lonesome sometimes. Mostly, they just want someone to sit there and listen. I’ll do that; I’ll stop and see people. They like to see the lady with the tall walker.”
Mona says the team at Walter Reed goes out of its way to plan activities and keep people smiling.
“One day they brought a horse in here! It was so exciting to see that little horse. … Also, I’m not a bingo lover, but I think it’s a good way to get out and see people. Go make somebody smile. That makes my day,” she says.
“I like to spread joy. And in here, it’s important. Just the human touch! What it does for people is amazing.”
Journey to Walter Reed
Mona’s husband passed away in 2016. While they didn’t have children, she has several nieces and nephews.
For a while, they didn’t know where she was. But once they did, they call her regularly.
“My nephew called and said, ‘I want you to know that from this day on, we’ve got your back.’ … He said Aunt Mona, you were the best aunt anyone could imagine having. … I was as bad as they were! I would take them for the weekend and I’d take them roller skating or to an ice cream parlor. I guess those memories stick with you. So, he said, ‘now it’s our turn to take care of you.’”
“It just made me feel so warm. I gave them all my love because I didn’t have my own. I had a wonderful time with those kids.”
She is originally from New York. She met her second husband while in California with her father. Mona went to school to be a medical assistant.
“I was just coming out of a divorce and looking for what to do with my life and felt that was good for me. I like people. I like helping people, so it was good for me.”
She worked in doctors’ offices and in a hospital in Anaheim as an EKG tech in the emergency room.
“That was exciting work,” she says.
Now she looks out the window at the “majestic trees” and spreads joy to others at Walter Reed.
“I’m at the end of a long journey, I’m enjoying the hell out of myself!” she says.
“From the ashes, you can rise.”
Sometimes you can find a forever friend even when you are 92.
Alvera Sommers and Robert Owens became fast friends after being introduced to one another through a social worker at York Nursing and Rehabilitation Center about two years ago.
Alvera was in an independent living community until she fell and fractured her hip about two years ago. She came to York for rehab around Christmas 2021.
She then injured her other hip, also rehabbing at York. It was then she met Bob, and as her daughter Pam tells it, “a spark flew and I couldn’t get her out of here.”
Bob was in therapy and was spending his first Christmas at York when Alvera moved in.
They both like living at York. The activities keep them going – and they’re always found together. They’ll occasionally dine together.
The two just smile at one another and keep each other in good spirits, laughing frequently when they are in a room together.
Alvera and her family are from the Allentown area of Pennsylvania. They vacationed at Wildwood on the Jersey Shore.
Alvera was twice married with two children. Her son, who was in the Army, passed away.
Daughter Pam spent 12 years in the Air Force. She and her husband moved from Hawaii to Newport News when he was transferred to Fort Eustis. She was a nurse and retired as a civil servant from Eustis.
Alvera’s husband built her a beauty shop in their home, and she owned one in the town where they lived for years. She was a nurse and beautician.
Alvera and her late husband traveled extensively, seeing much of Europe, Israel and Egypt. They visited Pam while she was stationed in Greece.
“Isn’t she brave?” Alvera said of Pam’s service. “We were so proud when she said she wanted to go into the military.”
Pam and her husband have been married for 31 years. They have two children, a daughter who lives in Baltimore and a son who lives nearby and visits his grandmother frequently.
Alvera has a sister who lives in Pennsylvania who is 86. She occasionally visits her sister with Pam.
She likes adult coloring books, and Pam keeps her with a good supply. Pam visits her mother frequently, often volunteering during events at York.
Bob has Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s and other ailments. He has been a bus driver, bookstore manager and worked at Walmart for 15 years. He found that keeping a few part-time jobs was better for his chronic disease management.
Bob is originally from Greensboro, N.C., finding his way to the area by way of northern Virginia, where he managed the student bookstore at J. Sargent Community College.