It might look like a quiet, unassuming little care home from the outside, but everyone from the Southern Shore, along with anyone who reads the newspaper or watches the suppertime news, knows differently.
Alderwood Estates, a waterfront property along Harbour Road in Witless Bay, is home to some of the most well-known seniors in the province. Their online videos, from pandemic toilet paper skits to Halloween haunts, have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. They’ve been known to frequent bars downtown, put on shows to rival Broadway, and dance as much (and as good) as any of us.
Since lockdown restrictions were implemented back in March, members of the Alderwood home have been interviewed for print, radio, and television features some 53 times.
That number comes courtesy of recreation director Renee Houlihan. She’s able to give you that number off the top of her head, because as well as planning the home’s recreation activities, everything from daily mind puzzles to community haunted houses, Houlihan is a tireless communicator, and is never shy about calling the media and sharing the seniors’ achievements and activities with the rest of us
“Every time there is a news story, it validates how relevant these seniors still are,” said Houlihan. “The seniors here still have meaning and purpose.”
Houlihan, who before moving back to Newfoundland had owned a farm in New Brunswick, said that while harvesting squash, strawberries, and apples may not have prepared her for a role as a recreation leader, her community involvement over the years certainly did.
“I don’t think I need the skills I learned on the farm necessarily, but I certainly needed the skills I learned as a community volunteer. I’ve always volunteered in the community. I’m a big believer in the power of the community and collective effort.”
That community involvement is strong along the Southern Shore, Houlihan asserts, and is the reason, mingled with a culture of respect for seniors, that so many of Alderwood’s projects have become so successful.
“We’re so proud of the Shore, they’ve wrapped around our seniors in a way that is incredible, and become rarer as people are becoming more disjointed, and connectiveness is not the norm,” said Houlihan. “Alderwood has become a place where the community still connects.
Everybody agrees with one thing on the shore. You might be Liberal or Conservative, you might not agree on global warming, but everyone agrees that they love these seniors. That is one thing that the Shore agrees on, and one can see it when we do these projects.”
Houlihan said that she’s been reminded of that love during the pandemic. Back in March, she launched With Love From the Front Porch, inviting local musicians to come and play for seniors from the front porch, so as to obey pandemic restrictions.
“Nobody said no. And some of them played in the snow. They played in minus four (degrees)… In some ways it was more powerful, because the seniors could see the effort these people were putting in. I would say to them, the music is beautiful, but the care coming through that speaker into the building, and the love, wrap yourself in that, because it’s even better than the music. And we never had a repeat. We had a different act right up ‘til the end.”
Pandemic restrictions hit seniors homes especially hard, as family’s were barred from visiting loved ones to protect them from infection.
“I knew that the malaise and despondence would set in when they couldn’t see their families, so I had to ramp up the activities. Not as a distraction, but to give them more of a focus,” said Houlihan. “The way I pitched that first skit, the toilet paper skit, was, ‘Let’s give your families something to smile about.’”
Debra Dunne, the owner of Alderwood Estates, said that seniors have been especially resilient during this time.
“The seniors refused to be victims to this virus. They refuse to give in. Every day they got up, and put one foot ahead of another,” said Dunne, who added that though seniors are vulnerable, they have also lived through world wars and pandemics and economic crisis.
“It’s so important to keep this virus at bay,” said Dunne. “And as Newfoundlanders, I feel that we have done a fantastic job and I think it goes back to our love for each other.”
Dunne and Houlihan go back — way back — before Alderwood Estates.
For one, both women grew up alongside each other on Harbour Road in Witless Bay.
“I had known Debbie my whole life. I had grown up just next door, and my great grandmother was actually in the old home. And, I babysat her daughter, so we go back a long way,” said Houlihan.
Dunne’s parents owned the original retirement home on the Alderwood property. She bought the home from them in the 80’s, tore it down, and built Alderwood.
Then, in the 90’s she sold the home and moved away. In 2012 she bought Alderwood back with a business partner. As of 2015 she is the sole owner of the home.
She hired Houlihan in 2017 to work alongside a recreational therapist.
“She just had this real knack with the seniors,” said Dunne. “Renee has this magnetic energy. And she truly cares about the residents, as I do. I’d say she could talk the cat out of a tree.”
Houlihan said that Debra’s management philosophy gave her the freedom to plan the type of events that make headlines.
“Debbie’s philosophy was that the sky is the limit. Seniors are older versions of ourselves. She gave me the directive, and she let me run with it, so it was a very magical partnership for both of us,” said Houlihan. “I remember asking Debbie if we could do a TGIF. And then the next day, there was a bar delivered to the living room. So, I guess that was a yes.”
Nowadays, when Renee calls, for example, to ask Debra if they could find a couple of caskets for seniors to hide in to scare unsuspecting visitors during Halloween, it feels par for the course.
“I can’t take credit, I just foot the bill for it all,” laughed Dunne. “People put seniors in a box, and stereotype them. But Renee and I together, that’s not us. We want to think outside the box. You can get older, but you don’t have to get old.”
Meanwhile, it’s been hard to plan for activities, what with COVID-19 restrictions, but Alderwood residents are still plenty busy; coming off preparing for Remembrance Day ceremonies, residents will be busy preparing for Christmas over the next two months, in addition to their regular activities, which now include an Italian language class.
“Think Calvert meets Milan,” laughed Houlihan.
Currently, there are 49 residents living at Alderwood, but Dunne hopes to expand in the near future.
Meanwhile, applications are still coming in, and not just from the Shore; they have a handful of inquires from across the country, including Ontario, BC, and Manitoba.
It seems everyone wants to go to Alderwood, and it might boil down to the owner’s simple philosophy.
“It’s better to wear out rather than rust out,” summarised Dunne.
Mark Squibb, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Shoreline News