Senior Center gives new life to experienced adults
Maxine and Buck Jackson found they got more than wholesome food when they decided to start eating at the De Soto Senior Center.
As site director of the Senior Center, Mary Bichelmeyer's main job is serving the meals prepared for the 15 to 20 daily visitors to the center and the 15 home-delivered meals. But she takes just as much an interest in the social life of her visitors.
"She gave us a life," Maxine said of Bichelmeyer.
Maxine said she and her husband were fighting depression and living a sedentary retirement before they first visited the Senior Center.
"It was the best thing I ever did," Maxine said. "I used to just get up and do whatever I had to do. Then, I'd sit around and watch TV the rest of the day.
"Now I come down here, help out anyway I can, and play cards."
Bichelmeyer also got the Jacksons involved in another therapeutic activity she prescribes to seniors dancing. Bichelmeyer played a key role in getting the Wyandotte Chapter of the Kansas Oldtime Fiddlers, Pickers and Singers to move its monthly hoe-down to the De Soto Community Center. She also helped organize a monthly dance in which performers from the Wyandotte Chapter play from 1 to 4 p.m. the second Tuesday of every month at the Senior Center.
Bill Lafferty, an 89-year-old Senior Center regular, said Bichelmeyer convinced him to start attending the local events and senior dances in Lawrence. He was no stranger to the Lawrence event, having attended them regularly with his wife of 61 years, Vaneta.
"I went twice after my wife died, but it didn't feel right," he said. "Driving home after the second time, I thought, 'What are you doing?'"
Lafferty said his wife's death sent him into a deep depression that saw his health deteriorated to the point he was walking with a cane.
As with the Jacksons, a visit to the Senior Center and a conversation with Bichelmeyer changed his outlook and life.
"I felt so sorry for him," Bichelmeyer said. "He was crying he was so depressed. I told him to go to the gymnasium and walk."
Now, Lafferty said he makes three laps a day around the gym adjacent to the Senior Center. His physical condition has improved to the point he quit using the cane he depended on when he first visited the Senior Center.
"She turned me around," he said of Bichelmeyer.
"I believe all people need to stay active," she said. "It's too easy to get down if you don't do anything."
Bichelmeyer practices active involvement as much as she preaches it, much to the awe of her regulars.
"I don't know how she does it," Lafferty said. "She's always on the go."
This weekend offered a case in point.
Bichelmeyer attended the De Soto Relay for Life Friday before going home at 11 p.m. She returned to the event at 2:30 a.m. to serve coffee, hot chocolate and rolls until 6:30.
At 7:30 a.m., Bichelmeyer had time to relax during a hair appointment, but 45 minutes later, she was back at the Senior Center preparing for the City Hall/Community Center open house Saturday afternoon. After providing refreshments at that event, she and her husband, Leo, went to their son's home to watch the heavyweight title fight. She said she got home at midnight.
After an equally active Sunday, Bichelmeyer admitted "when I hit my chair Sunday, I was dead."
She came by her enthusiasm naturally.
"Since I was a kid, I had a good outlook on life," she said. "I remember I was always singing and happy. I learned as a kid to know and love God, and that keeps you happy."
The children of many seniors have moved away, leaving them isolated and lonely, Bichelmeyer said. She encouraged people in those circumstances to visit the Senior Center and get involved with its daily activities.
"Even if they argue, it's good for them," she said. "It keeps some excitement in your life keeps the adrenaline going.
"It's just like they're brothers and sisters. They ask about each other if somebody's not here. They want to know what happened to them."