SPRING HILL — "I'm from Lincoln, Rhode Island," she says, sliding over one seat closer. "I've been here since November 2005."
She's just finished her turn playing tennis on the Wii Nintendo game that's been all the rage here at Atria Evergreen Woods. Irene Sudol is part of a small core group that attends nearly every activity at the retirement community. She keeps herself so busy there's no time to dwell.
There's Wii bowling after Mass on Sundays. Trivia. Current events discussions on Fridays. Dancing. Cocktail parties (Margarita Mondays! Tom Collins Tuesdays!). Cooking classes. Cheer Club visits to the sick. Card games. Field trips. Welcoming committees for newcomers.
By the time of this staff-sponsored Wii Olympic Games at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sudol has already been up for hours; washed, hair done, neatly dressed in her sky-blue Keds and white ankle socks, her team T-shirt (the Evergreen Woods Turkeys) and white pants unwrinkled and spotless. She caught up with friends, ate breakfast in the dining hall and did her exercise class, as she does five times a week.
"Today we did upper body," she says, following that with her age — 86 — and that she'll turn 87 on Sept. 3. She has no serious health problems other than some aches, which a hot shower soothes.
"I don't drive anymore, though," she says, with a sigh. "I got my license the day I turned 16."
"Want to ski jump, Irene?" calls Hollie Vergona, an 18-year-old activities assistant.
"Sure," Sudol says and excuses herself. Another Wii team from the rehab center a few buildings down was supposed to come, but never showed.
She balances her hands on the backs of two chairs and crouches down low and lifts up quickly for the ski jump, her face intent. As she's playing, one of her best friends takes her seat. Minnie Swanson is 89 and moved here from Michigan four years ago, after her husband passed away. Swanson is legally blind. When she does Wii bowling, she can see the lanes but not the pins.
"I always say, 'You don't have to see to Wii,'" says Suzanne Dallefeld, the activities director, after overhearing the conversation. Swanson laughs.
"She makes our home happy," Swanson says of Dallefeld, who is like a walking pompom; she's teeny with big, long hair and loud, constantly cheering on residents or affectionately teasing them to get them up and going.
Dallefeld's specific title is "engage life director" and her job is to make sure the residents are active and happy. She has to walk a fine line between encouraging and pushing too hard.
When people move here, usually they are at a traumatic low — they've just lost a spouse, they've had to sell their home and most of their possessions. They have outlived loved ones, and many are far from their native homes up north. This is likely the last time they will unpack. It's normal to want to give up. But Dallefeld has legions of help to make sure that doesn't happen.
In addition to the large staff, the residents form welcoming committees. They eat with the new people and check on them. The staff offers to throw a home-warming party, for free, for the new resident. They also take note of the small things a person likes — peanut M&Ms, mystery novels — and put those in the standard information bags for new residents. People are never forced to participate in activities, and that's fine, Dallefeld says. But everyone here looks in on each other, just to make sure they are okay.
"I'm surprised Seymour isn't here today," Dallefeld says to the group and makes a mental note to check on him afterward.
Sudol is finished ski jumping and sits back down next to Swanson.
"Have you ever been skiing?" Sudol asks. "One time I went skiing right after Christmas. My daughter…"
She pauses at the memory and her eyes gloss. Her daughter died in a car accident many years ago, she says softly. She was an only child. "She used to ski," Sudol says, giving a weak smile. "Her name was Dolores."
Sudol's two grandchildren from her daughter live in Vermont and Rhode Island. She talks with them once a week. "My grandson came to visit me in June," Sudol says.
She lost her daughter and her husband, Ted, her high school sweetheart, around the same time. Ted died at 55 from a heart condition. That's when she retired from her job as office manager at an airport. "He was a man who liked to dance," Sudol says. "We used to go to this place in Providence to dance every Saturday night." They loved waltzing the best. After she lost her husband and child, "my body shut down," she says. At this, she pulls a tissue from a pocket and holds it under her eyes. This kind of hurt never truly heals, she says.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN," Dallefeld shouts cheerfully. "It's time to announce the awards."
Sudol sits up and puts her tissue away. Joe Gonda, 94, and one of the reigning Wii champions, keeps his streak going by taking the gold medal. Swanson takes silver. "And Irene wins the bronze," Dallefeld says, and Sudol gets up, tears dried on her cheeks, to get her award, to keep moving forward, to survive.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.