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Retirement pastimes stitch together Long Island's senior-living communities

Eldergrow founder Orla Concannon leads indoor gardening at

Eldergrow founder Orla Concannon leads indoor gardening at Parker Jewish Institute in New Hyde Park. The residents are, from left, Lillian Finkelstein,  Blanche Smith, and Ramesh Khurana. Credit: Uli Seit

Knitting, gardening and the creative arts — these simple pleasures of retirement are doing double duty strengthening well-being and social fabric in Long Island’s senior communities.

In residences for the elderly in South Setauket, New Hyde Park and Commack, these hobbies are enjoyed in a group setting, helping residents put down new roots. With knitting needles and pruning shears in hand, they’re reconnecting with good memories and enlivening communities inside and outside their new homes.

“Joining a creative arts program provides a bonding experience with new friends, the challenge of learning a new skill and gives life purpose through giving back to those in need,” said Becky Gallucci, of Louisville, Kentucky, who gives creative and logistical support to Atria activities directors in five states, including New York. Atria operates 12 communities on Long Island.

Hobbies as therapy are not just a Long Island phenomenon. Programs combining arts, crafts and public service are helping residents acclimate to assisted-living facilities nationwide, said Rachel Reeves, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Assisted Living, which represents 4,000 U.S. communities.

“We’re seeing a lot of unique life enrichment programs in assisted living in order to help fulfill the needs of residents emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually,” Reeves said. “Knitting and sewing are ways to connect with the larger community, another sense of purpose helping a larger cause or connecting with different generations.”

Hobbies shared with others who have a common interest often improve moods and lessen feelings of loneliness, said Christopher Christodoulou, a neuropsychologist at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine’s center for Alzheimer’s disease. “Increased participation in leisure activities has been linked to a reduced risk of developing dementia,” he added.

CRAFTING A COMMUNITY

Atria South Setauket’s craft room resembled Santa’s workshop on a recent afternoon. Doll pieces were strewed across the big work table waiting to be sewn together, stuffed and shipped out to needy children -- not by elves -- but by the Atria Angels Sewing, Knitting and Crochet Club.

Formed eight years ago, the club counts nearly 40 "angels," many in their 80s and 90s. 

Among those knitting was Selma Spector, 98, who had worked for three decades as a New York Telephone business office supervisor. She and her late husband raised two children, living in Rockville Centre, Garden City and Uniondale, before she moved to Atria South Setauket.

Nowadays, she knits and crochets blankets, hats and bootees for babies at Long Island hospitals.

“It keeps my hands busy, it keeps my mind busy, and that’s important,” Spector said, barely looking down as her fingers nimbly knitted and purled row after row of a wool blanket.

The club’s fabric cutters, machine sewers and hand-stitchers have spread the warmth across LI’s hospitals and nonprofits. They have made baby blankets and hats for the Pediatric Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Stony Brook University Hospital and pillow cases for Mercy Center Ministries, a Patchogue-based nonprofit that assists homeless teens. New projects this year include a stream of identical flesh-colored surgery dolls, used by hospitals to show kids what to expect during a procedure, and stuffed animals sent to the Suffolk County police to become cozy companions to homeless children.

Across the table from Spector sat Dottie Moxon, also 98. She lived in Nesconset and Florida, raised four children with her husband, and has four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. “I sewed and mended clothing for my husband,” Moxon recalled, putting finishing touches on a surgery doll.

The club is also part kaffeeklatsch. Members socialize as they sew, occasionally bringing in a new member.

Two years ago, Moxon decided that resident Bob Murphy needed a hobby to take his mind off ailing legs and to steady trembling hands.

“Dottie introduced me to knitting,” said Murphy, 87. “Now I look forward to it,” he said, using a round loom to make a purple wool cap for his great-granddaughter, age 5. He’s knitted more than 100 hats and 30 scarves. Just about everyone at Atria South Setauket, staff included, has a knitted gift from Murphy.

Quipped Moxon: “We’re going to have a Bob Murphy hat day.”

GROWING CONNECTIONS

Arriving home from a day at work as a party-shop consultant, Theresa Ardezzone often stayed in the kitchen while her husband toiled in the backyard garden of their Bayside, Queens, home.

“My husband took care of the garden. I had no use for the outside work. I just didn’t have my nose in it,” Ardezzone said by telephone from Parker Jewish Institute in New Hyde Park, her home since 2014.

Although she spurned getting her hands dirty then, she always appreciated the fruits of their little patch. “We grew tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini -- which we loved -- and string beans,” Ardezzone recalled. “We loved fried zucchini.”

Now, at 94, Ardezzone cultivates her green thumb. Twice a month in Parker’s therapeutic gardening program, Ardezzone and other residents take classes with an educator from Eldergrow, a Seattle-based company. To remember the names of plants, they sometimes play a version of bingo using photos of flowers and herbs.

Once the basics are learned, they get down to gardening — not on their knees in the dirt, but with a mobile indoor cart filled with soil and bursting with lavender, chives, rosemary and basil.

“It definitely has effects with their dexterity. They dig in the dirt and it’s good for tactile stimulation for those that are cognitively impaired,” said Kathleen Keegan, director of therapeutic recreation at the Parker.

Eldergrow has helped Ardezzone appreciate the natural world. “You are dealing with something that grows, that comes from nature,” Ardezzone said, awe in her voice. “We’ve got to take care of it, make sure that it’s healthy and make sure we water and trim it if it needs it.”

When there are enough basil leaves for pesto, or fresh chives to flavor a dip, residents harvest the mobile cart to make a treat. That’s when Ardezzone’s memories of her late husband come flooding back. Gardening, she said, "brings me back to those days.” 

THE POWER OF POETRY

Lorraine Biondo, 90, grew up in Flushing, Queens, lived in Westbury while raising four children and still found time to play tennis, bowl and volunteer for her parish, Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Hicksville.

A widow for more than two decades, Biondo has lived for the past two years in the Memory Care Unit at Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack. The 60-bed unit opened in 2016.

“My mom has deteriorated a little, but there are some lucid moments,” said her daughter, Kathy Jablonski, 64, of Great Neck.

Many of those moments occur when Biondo is at the side of the unit’s unofficial poet laureate, nurse manager Elizabeth Ann Cort-Ranghel. “For whatever reason, my mother has this connection with Ann,” said Jablonski, herself a registered nurse working at Northwell Health.

Cort-Ranghel, of Deer Park, who is in her 40s, said her poetry has helped build a special bond with the people in her care. She recently received the Employee of Distinction Award for her poetry work at Gurwin. The award is one of 16 given annually in the state by LeadingAge New York, an association of not-for-profit senior care providers and communities.

Cort-Ranghel began writing poetry only recently. An immigrant from Trinidad, she worked in the financial sector until the 2008 economic meltdown. In 2016, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and later certification as a nursing assistant and dementia care practitioner.

“When I started working in the Memory Care Unit as the nurse manager, I felt the need to make people understand what it’s like to be diagnosed with dementia,” Cort-Ranghel said. “I’m a born-again Christian, so I prayed for a way to connect with residents.”

One morning, Cort-Ranghel said, she awoke with “all these words flowing in my head.” She sat down and typed a poem, “We Were Once You,” that attempts to see into the mind of someone with dementia.

Jablonski said hearing the poem read aloud has helped her mom. "It’s important for my mom to know that she once had a full life, that this isn’t her. It’s very powerful to read that poem,” she said.

“Poetry is like food for the soul,” Cort-Ranghel said. When she reads her poems to the residents, she said, they connect with the meaning and may respond by adding a few lines from their own experiences.

That first poem that Cort-Ranghel wrote provides inspiration at the entrance to the Memory Care Unit: "We are your past, we are your present / We will experience the journey through your eyes / Take our hands and help us on this journey / Because we were once you.”

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