Carroll Lutheran Village caregivers find family away from home during the holidays

It was midmorning Christmas Eve, and Tonia Stewart, a licensed practical nurse, was settling in for a series of shifts at Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster.

“I work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” she said, “so I am working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”


Yes, Stewart would be working both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but she and her family don’t mind, she said. She’ll be off early enough in the afternoon to spend time at home with her family, and when she’s at work, taking care of Carroll Lutheran Village residents, she’s with family of a sort as well.

“I just look at it as an extension of my own family because when their families can’t be with them, we’re here,” Stewart said. “I enjoy it, I don’t see it as taking away from home and family, because they know this is what I love.”

Between the health center at Carroll Lutheran Village and the Diven House assisted living facility, there can be between 125 and more than 150 people who need round-the-clock care, holiday or otherwise, according to Michael Athen, director of both facilities.

“We probably have between 60 and 70 people who work during the holiday — day, evening and night shifts — between our various departments,” Athen said. “We also have security staff, maintenance staff who are on call, housekeeping staff and we have food service staff.”

Without the luxury of being able to give everyone every holiday off, Athen said he tries to alternate holidays, so no one works say, both Thanksgiving and Christmas in the same year, or the same holiday two years running. Athen himself is on call 24/7, and worked the Christmas Eve day shift.

“Typically I try to work at least one or two holidays a year, because I believe a leader should have to do what their staff have to do,” he said. “I have a wife who works in the ER, so she is actually working tomorrow while I am with her family and my family celebrating Christmas. Luckily she works earlier, so she will join us around 3 p.m.”

Good scheduling aside, Athen said, his staff are very dedicated.

“It’s very enjoyable on the holidays. We get to spend time with patients who don’t have any family members, hear their traditions, what they used to do with their kids,” said Jasmine Young, a geriatric nursing assistant. “And the ones that do have family members, you see them engage with their family, see the grandkids come in and visit them. I love what I do.”

Young is off Christmas Day, but was working though the afternoon Christmas Eve before she could go home to her 5-year-old.

“When I get off, I will bake cookies and do gingerbread houses,” she said. “Christmas Eve is our tradition in my family, but I am here, so they are my family too. This is family here, away from home.”

Sandy Groomes, also a geriatric nursing assistant, was also off for Christmas but working Christmas Eve. She said her family is OK with it.

“My husband and my kids, they are doing something we do every year this morning, for breakfast and going to the gravesites for my mother-in-law, but it’s OK,” Groomes said. “I’ve been here 28 years, so they understand.”

At 11 a.m. Young, Athen and other staff members gathered with village residents in the dining hall to sing Christmas carols, with one tiny edit to “The 12 days of Christmas.”

“I’m going to be the cockatoo in a pear tree,” said Denise Zimmermann, director of nursing. On her shoulder was Opus, a white feathered cockatoo in a holiday mood.


“He’s a rescue, so he’s a little motley-looking, but he’s got the Christmas spirit, he’s got his hat on,” Zimmerman said of her feathered companion. “I have 12 birds at home, all kinds of parrots. Bring the birds in, and the residents love them because they can touch them and play with them.”

Opus took turns on residents’ shoulders and legs as they sang “Silent Night,” and other holiday classics, smiles on faces around the room.

“You get to know them and love them, and they get to be like family,” Zimmermann said. “We cherish every day with them and they become part of our lives. They ask us about our families and we get involved with their families. Sometimes we’re dysfunctional, but we’re still a family.”