Certain individuals have a gift for working with the elderly. Engaged but not condescending, they acknowledge and accommodate the limitations of age with patience and respect. Most of all, they truly enjoy older people. Below, meet a few such gifted souls, big favorites at local retirement communities.

Mary Ann Schroeder, social services director, McKnight Place Extended Care

    Schroeder laughs when told she’s one of the most popular employees at McKnight Place Extended Care. “Hey, I keep candy in my office,” she says. “They come for the candy.” But it’s not just the residents who turn to Schroeder for help. “Everyone who works here knows they can go to her with their problems and concerns,” says administrator Barbara Wagner.

    Schroeder has been a social worker at McKnight Place, part of The Gatesworth community, for 11 years. Working closely with visiting physicians, she organizes the care plan for each resident. “I genuinely enjoy people and find them fascinating,” she says. “I listen. I truly listen, without focusing on what I’m going to say next.” She also understands and appreciates the aging process. “Older people have had so many losses in their lives, and occasionally, they need help coping,” she notes. “I’m constantly amazed at how honest they are. Our residents have led incredible lives. They deserve attention and respect.”

Sharon Kruse, activity director, Meramec Bluffs Senior Living Community

    “I never envisioned myself as being an activity director,” admits Kruse. “I mean, ‘activity director’—what’s that, somebody who calls bingo games?” There’s a little more to it than that, Kruse learned, when she started working at Meramec Bluffs eight years ago. Today, she’s in charge of keeping 350 residents actively engaged and entertained. “I plan outings and parties for our residents, and I’m always on the lookout for new educational and entertainment opportunities,” she says.

    Kruse was an artsy-craftsy mom when she heard that Meramec Bluffs needed someone to assist with craft activities on a part-time basis. Two years ago, she took over the director’s position full time. She is particularly proud of the community’s ‘Bluffs Buddies’ program, in which residents take newbies under their wing, and of residents’ participation in the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization that transports veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

    Kruse says she connects with seniors because they’re comfortable with her. “I really listen, and I help them maintain a positive focus,” she explains. “Life changes as you get older. It can be tough. Having someone to talk to really helps. Working here is like having lots of wonderful aunts and uncles—and friends.”

Viara Todorova,

lead dining room server, Friendship Village

    “My English—it’s not too good,” Todorova, who is from Bulgaria, apologizes. She needn’t worry, however, because her warmth and humor immediately transcend all language barriers. A former construction technician in her homeland, she came to Friendship Village 11 years ago, and immediately adopted the residents as her second family. “I lost my parents when they were young,” she says. “Now I love this place and the people who live here.”

    The feeling is mutual. “Our residents adore Viara,” says marketing director Judy Moore. “She has such a way with people—she goes out of her way to learn about new residents before they move in, so she can greet them personally when they come into the dining room.” She’s unusually perceptive, Moore adds. “She knows as soon as she sees someone if they’re having a bad day, and she’ll do whatever she can to make it better. And she really listens, so if someone’s granddaughter is ill, she always remembers to ask about her.”

    Todorova and her husband, Milko, came to this country to build a better life for their two children. “I thought it would be hard to give up my career,” she says. “I did not know I would be so happy at this amazing place, Friendship Village, with these amazing people—but I am.”