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She gives the elderly the lift of friendship

The first time I saw Denise Bartlett was at a one-man-band concert at Sunshine Village in Pinellas Park. She was kneeling beside the wheelchair of a very old woman, joking with her, holding her hand, occasionally hugging her.

I thought Bartlett must be the granddaughter, until the older woman dozed, and the younger moved off to cajole a boisterous old man into silence so the rec room audience wouldn't miss the clear, non-flute-like tones of Bernie Earlie, the one-man-band.

By then I realized Bartlett, 32, was working _ a reassuring professional in an era when nursing home horrors crop up occasionally in the news. I wondered at her patience and obvious fondness for old people. "You see your own grandparents in a situation like this," she explains. "My grandma is in a nursing home in Syracuse, N.Y. I just hope and pray people are being nice to her."

Bartlett has favorites, usually those with spice and snap in their makeup:

The 104-year-old woman: "She's sharp and sweet and has a slew of grandchildren who visit a lot. Worries about the plants on her windowsill. Once she was sitting by them with the sun pouring in, holding a magazine to shield her face from the sun. I started to lower the blind, but she stopped me, and said, "My plants need the sunshine."

The 104-year-old woman lost a foot because of circulation problems. "That's why she's in a wheelchair," Bartlett says.

A leftover life: "Residents are so proud when their families visit," Bartlett says. "But there's nothing sadder than when there's a family close by and they don't come. Or hardly ever.

"One woman's son lives half an hour from this place and shows up at Christmas, always with a thoughtless present. Last year it was a pot and pan set _ for a woman who doesn't have a kitchen."

The stowaway: An elderly resident applied late for a trip to a restaurant. She wouldn't take no for an answer, but waited until the van's passenger area was loaded. Then she climbed in next to the driver who didn't realize she wasn't supposed to go.

"We let her _ we couldn't have her thrown off the van," Bartlett says. The other residents scolded her about breaking the rules. They worried that she didn't have any money with her. They were right. Patty and I paid for her lunch out of our own money."

Activities Director Patty Tydings is Bartlett's boss. "She recruited me." Bartlett laughs. "I wasn't working. I stayed home till my son Dustin was 5. But I used to volunteer a lot."

"The residents liked her," Tydings says. "She joked with them. They can really take a joke, and give it right back. They like to be treated like equals."

"They don't like to be treated like children." Bartlett thinks a moment. "Kids surprise you. They're not standoffish with the elderly. They can be very at ease with them."

Bartlett's husband, Victor, is head of the maintenance department of the 120-bed, medium-priced nursing home on U.S. 19 N. "Before I ever came here to work, I told him he'd earned his place in heaven, just by doing so much for these people," she says. "His mother would be so proud of him."

Of course, death comes often to a nursing home. "Patty and I get so upset when it's one of our favorites who has been here for a long time," Bartlett says. "But the residents usually handle it well.

"Sometimes they seem ready to go. Lately it happened to a lovely old man, almost from one day to the next. It seemed like he was ready, like he was already in a better place."