This year North Shore Elder Services (NSES) proudly celebrates forty years of serving older adults in their five communities. Nellie (Helen) DiLorenzo has the distinction of being our longest served client – first receiving services in 1988. At age 104, she also has the distinction of being a member of America’s elite group of Centenarians and is proof positive of what studies suggest; social connections are a factor in living longer.
Sitting down to talk with Helen, you quickly learn there is much that distinguishes her as a unique woman, aging in amazingly positive ways. We met in her apartment where she has lived alone since 1984, having moved to Marblehead after losing her husband Dominick (Happy) to cancer.
We were joined by Robyn Nathan, NSES Supportive Living Services Coordinator and long-time friend of Helen. The two met in 1984 at a bingo game and at one point a mutual friend suggested to Robyn that Helen could possibly use some home-making services. Eventually Robyn became Helen’s first Care Manager from North Shore Elder Services and the friendship continued to bloom, as did Helen’s relationship with NSES.
The other fortune that graced Helen’s life was when Marina, a Home Health Aide with a home care agency contracted by NSES, came into her home in 1995. Marina has been with Helen ever since, becoming a close friend over the past twenty years, going above and beyond the ten hours of service each week she provides. Helen acknowledges her good fortune. “I’m lucky to have this support. I don’t think I’d be here without Robyn, Marina and North Shore Elder Services. I often say, ‘What would I do without them?’ I have a lot of wonderful friends, but these two (Robyn and Marina) are the best.” Robyn adds, “We’re her family.”
In a country where she has no family, these friendships and social connections are strong contributors to Helen’s life being well-lived and joyous.
Helen was born and raised in England. She worked as a nurse in a children’s hospital in London. She recalls vivid details of nursing during war-time London, dodging shrapnel as she made her way to work while the frequent air raids took place. “As a nurse I had a special pass to be on the streets during an air raid. We had to walk as close to the walls of the buildings as possible to avoid debris and shrapnel coming down on us and being injured or killed. Everyone in London was allotted a gas mask and we wore helmets in the hospital while there was an air raid. There would be a flare on a parachute dropped before a bomb was; those flares lit the area apparently so the enemy could determine where to drop the bomb. There were several factories near our hospital and although hospitals were supposed to be target-free, the factories were not. The hospital did get hit one time.”
When asked if she was afraid, her reply seems typical of her generation and her profession. “We were in such a hurry to get to the hospital, we didn’t think about being afraid. We got so used to it after awhile.”
Before the war ended, Helen left England to move to Chicago to work at a pediatric hospital. “We left on a boat out of Scotland and were eight days at sea. We had to come through Canada first for safety reasons. There were four women in our compartment; two of them were pregnant. The seas were so rough we couldn’t go up on deck. We couldn’t even open our tiny window. It was as though we were trapped in that cabin. One night we heard what we thought were guns being fired and we were all called to the dining room and instructed to get life preservers on. Come to find out, there were German submarines following us and the gunshot noise we heard was actually our ship dropping depth charges to destroy the subs.”
While in Chicago, she travelled to Marblehead to visit a fellow-nurse friend. It was a chance meeting through a family member acquainted with her friend that she met Happy (aptly nicknamed because of his consistently happy disposition). She and Happy visited one another between Chicago and Marblehead for several months before deciding to marry at which point Helen left Chicago and moved to Salem. She worked for a couple doctors as a nurse for a few years and then left nursing and worked in Personnel for Sylvania. She and Happy then ran a store in Salem which sold stamps, coins, and gifts. Helen managed the store while Happy worked at General Electric and then Raytheon where he retired from.
It is not surprising to learn that Helen is still friends with one of her customers from the store. As a young man interested in coins, Ritchie was a regular visitor. “Ritchie is now in his 60s and is my friend. In fact, he came to my last birthday party.”
She and Happy travelled together mostly in Europe since he loved visiting her family in England. Helen took care of Happy while he battled cancer until his death at age seventy-two (thirty plus years ago). When I ask if it was a lot of care that he needed she replies, “I didn’t think about it as a lot of care. I just did it. I think anyone would do the same. It’s what you do right?”
Robyn observes, “In the over thirty years that I have known Helen, she approaches everything this way. She takes things in stride and doesn’t worry. She’s spontaneous and is up for anything. We’ll get in the car sometimes and just go – wherever the car takes us is where we end up. She just lives each day.” Helen adds, ‘Sometimes it’s a struggle to go, but I go anyway.”
Through the years, Helen has been involved with Marblehead Council of Aging, participating in quilting and knitting groups. Currently she attends the Swampscott Council of Aging and is there at least twice a week for Beano with a daughter of a former friend of Helen’s who is deceased. She especially enjoys her trips to Atlantic City and Foxwoods. She describes in detail her 104th birthday she celebrated with Robyn’s family at Foxwoods and the beautiful suite they were upgraded to. Truly her recall for details is beyond impressive. She would marvel anyone with her memory.
Helen doesn’t like to sit around. She needs to be busy and she makes plans for each day as her health allows. She isn’t without her health problems. She’s a five time cancer survivor and has a heart condition. She was seriously ill at age 95 with an infection of her heart lining and Robyn explains that they were told she was most likely not going to survive the disease. “She’s a survivor. She always rallies.”
After that episode the infectious disease doctor could only shake his head and tell Helen, “You’re not supposed to be here”, to which Helen replied, “I fooled you!” “My primary care doctor always tells me, ‘You never cease to amaze me.’” I have only known Helen a couple of hours and I would say the same thing!
Helen is currently busy knitting hats for soldiers overseas and estimates she has made fifty in the past few months. She points out some of her needlepoint, embroidery and oil painting works of art that hang on her walls. She likes to start getting ready for Christmas in July and finds shopping on the Home Shopping network quite convenient.
Recently Helen purchased a forty inch flat screen television to donate to North Shore Elder Services as an auction item for their 40th Gala Celebration on April 29, 2016. When I thank her for her generosity, she waves the gesture off saying, “Well I have been with them (NSES) so long” as though it were the most obvious thing that she would do in appreciation.
Helen’s stories are those you never tire of hearing. She leaves a lasting impression and defines aging in the most positive of ways. Everyone should have the privilege of meeting the inspirational Helen DiLorenzo.
North Shore Elder Services has featured Helen in a video that will have its debut at their Gala Celebration April 29th. If you would like to attend the event, go to https://www.regonline.com/Register/Checkin.aspx?EventID=1796855
Helen is just one of North Shore Elder Services’ many clients being assisted to age in place. Your generous donations make it possible for NSES to offer services that keep our older adults living in the community of their choice. We appreciate and depend upon your continued support to help us in funding programs that enable people like Helen to remain independent and in their own home. If you wish to donate at this time, go to https://nselder.org/donate-2/