If it’s Monday morning at the Placerville Senior Center, Judy Barlett is in the kitchen baking. She’ll produce 12 dozen muffins, 24 dozen cookies and vats of sugarless Jello and rice pudding, enough for the week.
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Thirty or more day-care members (those enrolled in the Senior Center Club) begin arriving about 9 a.m., many in community busses and vans. Most are in one stage or another of memory slippage, but they love the club and Barlett’s baked treats.
And she definitely loves day-care attendees back.
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she changes hats to become an activity assistant, engaging small groups of members in friendly interactions such as reminiscence discussions or adaptive physical activities like basketball or bowling.
Friendly but firmly she asks about recent activities.
“So, what did you do last night?”
Senior Day Care Program Director Wanda Demarest explained.
“We encourage recall of recent activities because it’s the short-term memory that declines first. By stimulating thinking about events last night or earlier this morning, we often see improvement,” Demarest said.
The energetic Barlett agreed.
“The Day Care program is vital to maintain socialization and purpose,” she said. “They look forward to being here. Family members can’t always take care of them during the day,” the venerable cookie maker added. “We don’t babysit, though. We encourage positive involvement.”
That’s the key. Through this program, the El Dorado County Senior Day Care Center actually allows members to stay at home longer, relieving the family, insurance companies and, ultimately, the Medicare and Medicaid system of the cost of residential care while providing respite for family members.
This isn’t Barlett’s first rodeo as a care giver.
“I’ve been taking care of people all my life. I wanted to become a nurse early on but it didn’t work out. So I did the next best thing, I began giving practical care to house bound patients,” she said.
She didn’t have far to look.
In 1983 her husband Fred suffered two major strokes, followed by a severe neck injury. Totally bed-ridden, he could only speak in short phrases.
“I was constantly by his side for 14 years before he passed,” Barlett said. “Many times he told of conversations with the Lord, indicating he couldn’t pass on yet, because I, his wife, wasn’t ready.”
She reflected on Fred’s last night on earth.
“He had slipped in and out of consciousness. Then in the deepest night I heard him singing a gospel song, ‘Shall We Gather at the River,’ and immediately asked him about it. He said he’d just received word from the Lord that it was okay for him to move on, because I would be just fine. Well, I guess that conversation was real because Fred did pass on that night. And he was right — after a bit, I was fine.”
Barlett began giving time to a board and care home, where Alzheimer’s patients were living out their years.
“The thing is, I became attached to each one,” she recalled quietly. “It was difficult for me when a death would occur. It’s not easy to get your heart into a place where it won’t break.”
She reluctantly left that line of work after three years.
But doing nothing was never an option for Barlett, a Toledo, Ohio waitress for 26 years.
She went to work for the new Kohl’s Department Store in Folsom.
“I walked in and saw absolutely nothing but empty space. But trucks were on the way, and we put every single item into place. Then we opened for business and I worked the floor. It was a great job,” she said.
Her career as a retailer came to a sudden stop in 2005 when after three years, she underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
The indefatigable future baker stayed home for a few years, fancying herself retired. But the bug to help the elderly and memory-impaired finally prompted her to call the Senior Center.
“Got tired of doing nothing. Sitting around all day, that’s not for me,” she said.
In 2010, Barlett began volunteering at the center, a few hours per week at first, but that has increased.
She currently gives 50 to 60 hours per month, more than 1,200 hours in the three years.
She assisted the baker in the early days. Her tasty goodies were well received, and soon she was rewarded with the whole baking operation.
Demarest shakes her head.
“Judy is unbelievable in her dedication and energy. Down-to-earth and sincere. The staff adores her, counts on her. You might say she’s a care-giver to them as well,” Demarest said.
The lively baker appreciates the accolades.
“I’m not exceptional,” she reflected. “I’m ornery and I tease people a lot. But I really do cherish each one and each one knows it. The outreach here is love, real love. It connects us. And baking is a flat-out pleasure, too. It’s good to enjoy what you’re doing. This Senior Center gig is a very satisfying thing.”
Barlett said her biggest personal change since leaving the earlier work with Alzheimer patients, has been her loss of fear.
“They are on a journey toward heavenly peace, so why should I be afraid for them? Love has replaced my fear,” she smiled. “And they know I love them.”