MISHAWAKA — Arnold Joers was dressed to the nines for the dance, his black tuxedo and bow tie accented with a single red rose pinned to his left breast.
Tucked into one of his jacket pockets, he carried a picture of himself younger than himself twirling his late wife, Carolyn, fast enough for his blonde ponytail to swing. Both were part of the 100 Club Michiana, a dinner-and-dance club that held regular outings where Joers met good people while promoting the carpet business he opened in 1954.
But Joers, 99, and his dance partner Friday, Josephine Myers, 89, each stood on either side of a walker as they tried to find their rhythm.
They both went from highly skilled ballroom dancers to two college students trying to get their footing.
“My mom taught me to dance when I was about, I would say, 10,” Joers said.
They were two of six seniors living at Tanglewood Trace, an assisted living facility in Mishawaka, who told caregivers their dream was to learn to dance or relive memories by dancing again. After nearly six weeks of Tuesday afternoon practice sessions with volunteer trainer Amy O’Day, three men in tuxedos and three women in dresses met for a finale on the dance floor of Forever Dance Ballroom Studio on Grape Road.
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The opportunity came through a new quarterly program at Tanglewood called “Livin’ the Dream,” said Vibrant Life director Katrina Mangold. Every few months, residents can choose to learn a skill or participate in an activity they have always dreamed of doing.
The next step is to fly in a hot air balloon, Mangold said.
“It’s their life. They want to have fun,” she said. “We didn’t leave when we were 80. … We want to live.”
Having been a dynamic life worker during the pandemic, Mangold said, the new set of activities is a welcome change from the dire conditions that have overwhelmed seniors’ residences.
Residents at an assisted living facility in Elkhart, where she worked until the end of 2021, were essentially stuck in their rooms for 75 days when COVID-19 began to spread. Visits from friends and family have occurred through closed windows or not at all.
“We lost so many residents in our assisted living facility at that time,” Mangold said. “It was just heartbreaking.”
She did what she could to add joy to each day, bringing crossword puzzles and bingo cards to their bedroom. Once she brought a goat to cheer up the residents.
Sometimes she would just listen to what they had in mind.
Although staff members still wear masks at Tanglewood facilities, friends and family can now visit them. Energetic life workers can take residents out to eat or entertain. A group of them spent part of Easter Sunday watching the South Bend Cubs game, Mangold said.
“We all have goals and dreams and we never stop living. It’s very important to see,” she said. “It’s so nice to be able to be normal.”
Trying to dance like they once did or learning for the first time has gone down well for some seniors. But Joers and Myers, who each use a walker, said the reality of their physical condition clashed with the vision of themselves dancing replaying in their minds.
The issue Myers dealt with on Friday was that the front wheel of Joers’ walker continued to interfere with his feet. She said out loud that she wished she could just put her arm around him and swing.
Myers said she used to dance “twice a week, every week.” He was asked how he tries to get back on the floor.
“Terrible,” she answered bluntly, “because I can’t relax and dance.”
Myers said her efforts on Friday didn’t even feel like dancing. But she finds joy in watching others and cherishes the moves she can make.
Accepting where she is in life, she says, is an ongoing process.
Joers, who opened local business Joers Floor Center with his wife in 1954, said his health issues began shortly after his death in 2018.
“I woke up one morning and my legs stopped working,” he said.
In July, he will be 100 years old. On Friday, all he could do was take small, stiff steps and try to relax.
After a few minutes, he told Mangold, who was standing nearby supporting him with one hand on his lower back, that he could be left alone.
As Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” ramped up, Joers got carried away by the music. He started to wiggle his shoulders.
Within seconds, he was smiling broadly.