BY JEREMY WALTNER, EDITOR
Last spring, in the early days of a pandemic that would change lives and ways of life, Viki Graber came across an article online about a woman whose husband was admitted to a nursing home. Rather than relying on remote visits and other means of distant communication, she solved the problem of separation and isolation by getting a job washing dishes at the nursing home.
“That always stayed in the back of my mind,” said Viki, a Freeman native who has spent most of her adult life living and working in Goshen, Ind.
And so it was, when it came to pass last summer that her 97-year-old mom, Virginia, moved from her apartment at Dewald Street Village into Oakview Terrace, the nursing home that is part of Freeman Regional Health Services, Viki knew what she wanted and needed to do.
So she did.
Viki applied for, interviewed for, and was hired as a temporary full-time housekeeper beginning the second week of December and is finishing up what has been an enjoyable, satisfying and rewarding two months here.
“I’m cleaning and killing the Covid and able to hug my mom at the same time,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”
Virginia Graber took up residence at Oakview Terrace in June after a series of falls in her apartment that is part of the network of assisted living accommodations owned and managed by Freeman Regional Health Services. Viki was initially able to visit her mom in the courtyard, from a distance through a fence, but knew that would become a greater challenge when the weather turned cold.
“It got to be winter and I was keeping track of Covid spread from the SD Department of Health and other statistics,” she said. “I was thinking once it got fairly bad, people were going to step up and it was going to get better. And we all know what happened — it didn’t.”
Uncertain of what the long-term impact of the ongoing spread would be and what that might mean for an in-person, face-to-face relationship with her mom, she thought back to the story she had read about the wife who took a job washing dishes at a nursing home to be close to her husband and began putting the wheels in motion to do something similar.
“I started to strategize — OK, how can this happen?” Viki said. “There were so many components to it that I just needed to figure out what to do first.”
Her first step was running it past her wife, Judy Snider, “because it impacted her the most.”
“And she got on board,” Viki said, “and it was, ‘OK, let’s see how we can make this happen.’”
She then reached out to Amanda Mettler, director of social services, and Lindsey Unruh, a social worker at Freeman Regional, to see if a two-month stint at Oakview Terrace was even a possibility; she was advised to put in an application.
Next, Viki talked to her employers, Jesse and Amanda Sensenig, founders and owners of Goshen Brewing Company, where Viki has worked as a brewer and facilities manager since it opened six years ago; Jesse happens to be a nephew.
“I told him (when he was opening) that if there’s a place for me, I’m in,” Viki recalls. “And Jesse said, ‘Do you want to brew beer?’ And I said, ‘Uh, yeah.’”
Anyway, and not surprisingly, the Sensenigs were fully behind Viki and her pending plan; it didn’t hurt, she said, that Goshen Brewing Company was not operating at full capacity because of the pandemic.
“If there ever was a time to take off,” Viki said, “this was it.”
Then came an interview with Evan Waltner, head of maintenance at Freeman Regional Health Services. Viki was aware of the housekeeping shortage at long-term care facilities in the era of Covid and figured this would be an area where she could make an impact. Incidentally, she had watched Evan grow up in their shared home church, Salem-Zion Mennonite.
“I just remember him as a toddler in church,” she says. “Now he’s my boss.”
Finally, with everything else quickly falling into place, there was the question of where to live. Viki made arrangements to stay with her brother, Kim, in the early weeks and also reached out to friends John and Sara Schrag about housesitting at their Freeman home while they were south for the winter.
“They were wonderful about it,” Viki said. “I was overwhelmed with the way everything came together.”
Viki’s primary responsibility while working at Oakview Terrace has been to clean rooms, from floors and toilets to sanitizing high-touch areas, “trying to keep things safe and engage with the residents as much as possible.”
It is the relationships she has formed with the residents — not just her own mom — that has meant a great deal to Viki.
“There has been a lot of new awareness,” she said stemming from spending so much time at Oakview Terrace. “One of the things that surprised me — which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me but was something I didn’t expect — was to see a lot of my schoolmates’ parents are in the nursing home now. My childhood dentist is there, and there other people who I had contact with before they got to the nursing home.
“I feel grateful that I have that connection.”
And that has revealed an important point that Viki believes gets lost on the larger public.
“I feel like some of the younger people, especially, just have no idea who these people were before they came to the nursing home, and who they are now,” she said. “They were pillars of their community who contributed so much to the place where others now live.
“I hope that someday, when time allows, when we don’t have to pay so much attention to Covid restrictions, that others can get to know these people in that way.”
And that includes the health care workers charged with their care.
“I know the staff does as much as they can; they’re trying to take care of them physically and suit their needs there,” Viki says, “but to engage them in conversation is the extra step.”
She sees how important that is with her own mom, whom she is with during every break and for at least an hour after she clocks out at 3 p.m. every day.
The contact with her mom has been everything she had hoped for.
“I want to try to keep her mind active,” Viki said. “One of the issues, not just with her, but all the residents at the nursing home, is that they sit there. They sit there all day.
“Mom is still really mentally with it,” she continues. “A lot of times I try to get her talking about things in her past — get those stories out of her. She loves talking about the past, when she was a schoolteacher and how she ended up marrying my dad and getting on the farm …”
“Every day she says, ‘I’m going to miss this so much.’ It really tugs at my heart strings. But I also know that she’s a glass-half-full person and is really grateful that I got to spend this time with her, even though it’s going to be hard when I leave.”
“It’s been wonderful having Viki here,” said Virginia. “Every time my door opens, I think it’s her. I’ll miss her terribly when she leaves; she told me she would be back sometime and do this again.”
Viki has frequently returned to her home community during the 30-plus years she’s been away. Not only does she have family here, but Viki has been a regular demonstrator at Schmeckfest, showing the art and skill of willow basket-making she learned from her dad, LeRoy, who learned it from his grandfather when he was a child.
But the past two months have been the longest consecutive period of time Viki has been in Freeman since finishing her two years at Freeman Junior College in 1984. Coming home, she says, has been wonderful.
“I still love it here,” said Viki. “There are a lot of the things that are the same. There are a lot of things that are different. But this is still a community that cares about each other, and I see a lot of that still going.”
While here, Viki — who painted and wallpapered for a living before taking the job at Goshen Brewing Company — has also volunteered her time painting at Heritage Hall Museum & Archives. It’s no coincidence that the work came through coordination with Marnette Hofer, the archivist and executive director of the museum who happens to be one of Viki’s dear friends from her youth.
“When one of your best childhood friends is the director there, she kind of sucks you in,” Viki laughs. “Painting is something I did for a very long time in my life so I knew that was a way I could contribute. It’s very much appreciated and that feels good.”
Mostly, though, Viki is just grateful for the opportunity to come home and be with her mom in this unique way, in this challenging time.
“I knew that if I didn’t do this, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” she said. “And maybe longer.”