Gidwitz Place Ambassadors Welcome the Community's New Kids on the Block

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By Nicole Bruce

It’s not easy moving to a new home and environment. Without a friendly neighbor to help you navigate existing social circles, it can be a struggle to make friends. Connecting with others doesn’t get any easier when we age and move to a new place later in life, even if it’s an assisted living community with dozens of social and life enrichment activities. With this in mind, Gidwitz Place at Weinberg Community for Senior Living in Deerfield has started a new program called the Gidwitz Ambassador Program which is designed to welcome new residents and organized by current residents and a volunteer.

As the go-to Gidwitz ambassador, resident Bonnie Lande certainly stretches her social butterfly wings while getting to know all the other residents, because she understands what it’s like to be new to the community: “When you first move to Gidwitz and you don’t know anybody, a person can feel lost, and it can be difficult to get to know people right away. When I moved in two years ago, there wasn’t an easy way to meet people. If you’re not an outgoing person, it can be challenging. A lot of people can’t go up to somebody and say, ‘Hi, my name is ‘so and so,’ and I’m new.’”

As a result, Lande and Cathy Wolfson, a Gidwitz volunteer, spearheaded the Gidwitz Ambassador Program, and got other residents involved through a kick-off luncheon. They initially invited residents they felt would make great mentors for newcomers, and it’s since expanded to others who’ve expressed interest.

Wolfson also had a personal connection to CJE, which inspired her to help develop the program for Gidwitz residents: “My mom lived at Lieberman Center for two years, and they took exceptional care of her. I was just so grateful, and able to appreciate it even more than most because I’d been working in the long-term care industry for the past 25 years. There was a program in place to help new residents get to know the other residents, so she met a lot of the people on her floor, and eventually even started the bridge program there. When I started volunteering at Gidwitz, I thought it’d be really nice to start a similar program for the residents.”

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Together, Lande and Wolfson match incoming residents with ambassadors based on a number of factors. “Once we find out about the new residents who’ll be moving in, Bonnie and I figure out who would be a good ambassador match for a new resident based on his or her floor, interests, and often, personality. We focus on who’s going to make the other person feel comfortable, and who has a really good handle on Gidwitz, rather than simply matching fellow bridge players together. If it’s a couple moving in, we try to match them up with another couple,” said Wolfson. “Bonnie’s been great at giving staff her feedback because she knows all the residents. She has a really good pulse on the people living here.”

It’s no surprise that the array of life-enriching programs and activities offered at Gidwitz are some of the best ways for residents to meet others with similar interests, but it’s who you share a meal with that brings people closer together. Ambassadors first greet new residents on the day they move in by knocking on their door to introduce themselves and inviting them to lunch or dinner. “Ambassadors will answer any questions new residents might have, and also invite them to a meal to introduce them to other residents,” says Lande. “You’re not assigned tables for meals in the Dining Room, and many residents have already established the people that they want to have lunch or dinner with, making it a little harder for a new resident. So we thought if we hooked up a new resident with a current resident, it might get the ball rolling.”

Wolfson recalls a time when her mother helped her grandmother make friends: “I remember when my grandmother moved into a retirement home in Cincinnati, and my mom, who was always very outgoing and made friends easily, sat with her at lunch for the whole first week she was living there and helped introduce her to people to make her feel more comfortable,” says Wolfson. “Sharing a meal makes it a little easier for the new resident to make the transition. We hope that the ambassadors will introduce the newer resident to more residents and maybe share another meal with them.”

In addition to inviting newcomers to meals and interesting programs, ambassadors welcome new residents to a reception on their floor soon after they’ve moved in. “Every month, the ambassadors and staff host social gatherings on the floors where new residents have recently moved in. All of the residents from that floor will attend to welcome the new resident with refreshments and introduce him or her to more people,” says Lande. “Going to the social get-togethers once a month helps newer residents meet the rest of the people on their floor.”

Of course, you can’t predict just how many move-ins there will be in a given month. But that doesn’t stop the ambassadors from partying, even if all six floors have a new resident to welcome in a single month. “There was one month recently where we had a reception on every floor—all on the same day and at the same time! Rotating staff ensured everything went smoothly, and the kitchen provided a beautiful spread of hors d’oeuvres, so it’s been a big team effort,” says Wolfson.

According to Wolfson, the social gatherings have been a wonderful way for not only new residents to get to know the other residents on their floor, but also for staff to connect with them. “The receptions have been great because residents converse with other people that they might not have spoken with otherwise,” says Wolfson. “It’s worked out so well because the residents have really embraced the program and friendships have developed. It’s nice that all of the ambassadors have shown up to the receptions, and the Gidwitz staff are very involved in this program too. They all come to meet the new residents.”

Lande attributes the success of the Gidwitz Ambassador Program to its simplicity: knock on the new resident’s door the first day they arrive to introduce yourself and invite them to a meal, then go back the next day. “I just try to make the newer residents feel welcome. It’s a simple process, but I think it’s been quite successful.”

Find out more about Gidwitz Place at Weinberg Community for Senior Living by visiting WeinbergCommunity.net. Weinberg Community residents interested in volunteering for the program can contact Barbara Milsk at 847.929.3040 or volunteers@cje.net.