A Gentleman with a Big Heart
Tony Baerg has been with us for a long time and is a much-loved gentleman. Now in his 80s, he is slowing down but he has left – and continues to leave – his mark on those with whom he interacts. This is part of his story – thanks to Jonathan Goertz, Elaine Moore, Wendy Toohey, Gillian Viljoen and Angela Poulton for sharing their memories and thoughts.
Tony grew up in Yarrow BC and came from a large family – he was one of 10 children. Tony also has a twin sister, Hilda. He lived at home until he moved to The Cedars in Rosedale as a young man. While growing up, he attended the Yarrow MB church with his family and developed many friendships through the church. Tony and his mother had a close relationship. He learned the chores around the house and in the garden while keeping her company and was a great help to her. He also worked in the fields picking berries and hops.
In 1976, Tony moved to The Cedars, the first residential home established by Communitas. Tony’s mother had passed away, his father was aging and so there was a need to find more care for Tony.
At The Cedars, Tony had seven other housemates and it seems that he got along with everyone. Jonathan Goertz, who managed the home from 1994 – 2004, remembers that Tony was especially close to Ken Kozak who also moved into The Cedars in the early days and also remains connected to Communitas. Tony spent many years in the Rosedale community and the people of Rosedale got to know him and the other gentlemen at the Cedars.
Church continued to be an important place for Tony. He attended the United Church across the road, as well as the Rosedale Pentecostal Holiness Church. Elaine Moore*, who managed one of the homes where Tony lived and currently serves as a Program Director for Communitas, also grew up in Rosedale and attended the Pentecostal church. She was only five years old but clearly remembers the men from the Cedars coming each Sunday, singing loudly and gesturing as Reverend Vince Gallis gave the message.
Tony took long walks either alone or with others. He rode his bicycle daily and played pool and ping pong in the rec room. He continued to use the gardening skills he’d learned from his mother and enjoyed spending time in the yard. He also enjoyed watching TV and movies with his friends. During the week, Tony attended the Opportunity Workshop, a day program where he worked at many different tasks including handcrafting, simple carpentry projects, distributing flyers and newspapers, and attending community events. Occasionally, his sister Louise would pick him up on the weekend to go and visit the church in Yarrow, looking up old family friends. In the summer, she would pick him up and take him to Pender Harbour where she had a cottage and he would spend a month or more enjoying his summer vacation. A love for gardening was also instilled in Louise, who loved working in her garden there. Jonathan remembers Tony as a true gentleman. He always uses a handkerchief when he sneezes or coughs (something he learned from his mother). He always greets visitors with a warm handshake and a smile. He is polite and kind.
“I can only describe him as having a quiet and gentle spirit,” Jonathan says.
Eventually the program moved from The Cedars to a new home on Tyson in Chilliwack. The Cedars home was aging and the renovations that would be needed to get the house up to licensing standards were just cost prohibitive. The gentlemen living in the home were also aging and so a new home that would suit their needs was found.
Wendy Toohey was one of the managers at Tyson home. She recalls his love for stuffies; an enjoyable visit to the mall included any store in which stuffies lived.
One of the people living at Tyson was Emily. Tony really seemed to love Emily. He would pat her on the head or stroke her arm. He was always very gentle with her.
Gillian Viljoen was also a manager at Tyson. She remembers Tony waiting patiently next to her office door with his lunch bag, waiting for the day program bus to pick him up and take him to the Opportunity Society. As Tony got older, he began to enjoy his days at home more and eventually he retired, (at age 82!) something for which staff had to advocate.
Both Gillian and Wendy recall the way in which Tony expressed sadness. One of the realities of living with aging housemates is that sometimes people pass away. One day, Wendy found Tony sitting and looking at the portraits on the wall of his friends who had passed away. He pointed to each portrait and then to himself, silently expressing his loss.
“He shows his loss by looking at their photos and tapping on their picture. He holds his grief silently,” Gillian says. “But he was also a silent witness to their journeys, aware of what was going on and very much a part of each passing. He was a witness to them dying and with staff support saying his goodbyes.”
As the residents of Tyson home became challenged by having too many stairs in their house, a home with better wheelchair accessibility was sought and found on Bayshore. Tony and his housemates have made this their home and the staff have worked hard to let the home reflect the character and personalities of all those who live here, including Tony.
One of the ways in which this is reflected is when a staff member named Rosalee picked up on Tony’s love for all things Christmas. One summer during her nightshift, Rosalee decorated the home with a Polar Express theme. When Tony woke up the next day, he was delighted to have Christmas in Summer, watch his favourite film and sing German carols.
Music is a big part of Tony’s life but one song in particular stands out.
“Every staff member at Bayshore knows the song ‘Bluebird’,” Elaine says. “It’s his absolute favourite song!”
Angela Poulton, the current manager at Bayshore, has a long history with Tony, having worked with him here and at Tyson. She has also experienced Tony’s love of music (especially German hymns and carols) and Christmas. For years, Tony had a small Christmas tree that he set up in his own room, even in the middle of summer. He would decorate it and enjoy it for a few weeks. The signal to start decorating for Christmas throughout the home was when Tony would bring out his personal tree in late fall. Along with Polar Bear Express, Tony also loves to watch other Christmas films and this year discovered the various Christmas offerings on Netflix.
One of his very favourite films beyond Christmas movies is Shrek. He loves the movie and all the music associated with it. Angela says she’s bought several copies of the DVD because they get worn out from frequent use.
Although he no longer volunteers outside the home, he continues to enjoy creative pursuits. In the past he has participated in whatever craft projects the staff have offered. These days, he still enjoys sitting with his crayons and colouring in a book.
Family continues to be very important to Tony. He has lunch with his sister Heidi three times a month. They go to the Roseland Restaurant in Abbotsford where the staff are amazing. They know Tony and Heidi by name, they reserve a specific table for them and they puree his food for him, which makes it so easy for the staff to facilitate this visit.
Along with weekly visits with Heidi, Tony also has a weekly phone call with his sister, Hilda. The staff will call her, give Tony the phone and she chats away. Tony smiles, nods his head and when it’s time to say goodbye, he waves. It’s something he really looks forward to.
Faith continues to be important to Tony, although he doesn’t visit church that often any more. The services have become too loud for his tastes and he prefers quiet, traditional services. Angela remembers taking Tony to a local German church. Angela doesn’t know German but she would sit with Tony during the services anyway. Tony noticed that she didn’t know the language and the next time, he gave her an English Bible. The pastor noted this as well, and from then on, when they would come to the services, the pastor would ensure that Angela had an English Bible with the day’s scripture text marked for her to read.
Driving with Tony is an interesting experience. Several of the staff noted that Tony has an excellent memory for directions. If he knows where you’re headed, he will point out where to turn and always get you there. If you deviate from the plan, he gets quite agitated! He also remembers exactly where to park.
Tony is a man of routine. He sits at the same place at the table, likes it when dinner is at 5:30 pm, and likes to nap most mornings.
Tony has many wonderful qualities but the two words that seem to describe him consistently are “kind and gentle”. Even when he is agitated or angry, he is quick to forgive when someone apologizes to him.
“This shows his big heart and his gentle soul,” Gillian says.