Betsy Burmeister makes Windemere residents happy

Betsy Burmeister is the recreation director at Windemere Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Life at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center is not all fun and games, but fun and games are important to Windemere’s residents. Betsy Burmeister, recreation director there for 16 of her 17-year tenure, is the mistress of fun and games.

Ms. Burmeister works out of a small, windowless, closet-like room next to the activity room. Her computer and phone are her windows on the world. She manages what appears to be an endless schedule of activities and a vast array of people, from entertainers to dogs to kindergarteners, including more than 80 volunteers.

She speaks excitedly about her job, which she says is to make people happy. “We try to make the time our residents spend here as enjoyable as we can,” she said during a recent interview. “I love it here. It’s great. I like coming up with things that will make them happy while they are here.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Ms. Burmeister had visited the Vineyard with her parents as a teenager and “really liked it here.” She majored in sociology at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

She had not thought about living on the Island until a year after a woman she worked with at a nursing home in her home state moved to the Vineyard and called her. She told her there was a nursing home, Windemere, opening up on the Island and suggested that Ms. Burmeister apply for a job.

Ms. Burmeister got the job and quickly found a house to rent on Duarte’s Pond in West Tisbury. She has lived up-Island since then. She now lives in Menemsha with her dog, Piper, and a cat. “I love it there,” she said.

Of the 74 elderly residents of the Island nursing home and assisted living facility, 90 percent attend at least some of the activities, according to Ms. Burmeister. “We have things to do seven days a week,” she said.

Filling a daily year-round activity calendar for the residents is not an easy job, especially on a limited budget, Ms. Burmeister said. “Without our annual benefit auction, we would not be able to do many of the things we do.”

Some of the activities take the residents around the Island and occasionally off-Island, but the majority occur in the activity room and in the residents’ rooms. Musicians and other performers visit to entertain the residents. There are yoga classes, exercise programs and massages, dog visits, and ice cream socials, a regular formal tea, bingo, and an art club.

“We try to come up with new ideas every year,” Ms. Burmeister said. “New people come along. I will hear about them or see their names in the paper, and I will ask them if they would like to play at Windemere.”

A new volunteer, a classical pianist, just came in last week. Last year, they started a swimming program at the YMCA .

Some people, musician Dorothy Bangs, for instance, come every year. “She has been coming here for about 20 years,” Ms. Burmeister said.

Most of the outings are on weekends. Mary Holmes handles them. They have heard the bell choir at the West Tisbury Congregational Church and Tim Conway at the high school. They go to Linda Jean’s for dinner and to see MV Sharks baseball games. Featherstone is a regular stop, as is Grace Church for lobster rolls. They have been to hear the Vineyard Sound a cappella singing group and to the strawberry festival.

Ms. Burmeister said there are more than 80 people who volunteer for her programs. Some volunteer once a month and some more often. Five ladies come monthly for a formal tea with the Katama Trio. Others play piano or help with transportation. There are dog owners who bring in their therapy dogs for visits. A massage therapist is a hands-on volunteer.

Nevertheless, Ms. Burmeister said they can always use more volunteers. “Some volunteers do one-on-one visits,” she said. “They will read to a resident or take them out or write letters for them. We can always use people like that.”

Ms. Burmeister does all of the programing, and she has one full-time assistant who helps with the activities. “I call members of the community and see if they would like to come in,” she said.

Funds raised at their annual auction allow the programs to expand. “It costs us to go out to dinner,” Ms. Burmeister said. “The two-day-a-week exercise program, we pay for. We have some volunteers, but most of the musicians get paid,” she said.

One program that she is particularly fond of is an inter-generational program she started about seven years ago with the Chilmark School. The school received a grant from the Permanent Endowment Fund to buy cameras for the second and third grade classes, about 10 children. After being buddied with Windemere residents, the students take photographs that illustrate their lives, put them into portfolios, and then share them with their buddies. After the students tell the residents about their lives growing up on the Vineyard, the residents then describe their childhoods.

Strong bonds sometimes emerge. Ms. Burmeister said that she has been told by parents of children in the program who are now in high school that their kids still talk about the experience.

“We now have kindergarten students who come in and spend time with some of the residents,” Ms. Burmeister said. “They will just go right up to people and ask questions. I was hiding behind my mother’s skirt at that age.”

The wish program is another that Ms. Burmeister likes to talk about. Residents make a wish for their birthdays. One resident wanted to go up in a bi-plane for her 80th birthday. She did. Another who was a pilot, went up as well.

Another birthday girl wanted a facial, “That was her wish, so we took her to the Mansion House.” Deep sea fishing was another granted wish.

Resident Mary Fisher, who recently had her picture taken on a tricycle, said she had not been allowed to learn to ride a bike as a child in Edgartown because she was told that it was for boys. She made a wish to dip chocolate. “She had worked at Hilliard’s, and they never let her dip. So we got Good Ship Lollipop to come in with chocolate, and she got to dip — at 104 years old. We would not have had the money for these programs without the funds from our auction.”

What does a busy recreation director do in her spare time? “I go to the movies, take photographs, hang out with my friends and train Piper, my rescue dog from Kentucky, who I want to train as a therapy dog. I like living in Menemsha. I don’t like the city.”

When she does make it to “the city,” she is usually at Windemere where, she says, “we are out and about and having a good time.”