Maria Gutzeit | Bella Vida: The Start of New Senior Center Memories

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WOW! Bella Vida is gorgeous. It looks like a high-end business hotel with on-trend décor, a professional-grade kitchen, gym, landscaped patio area, a ballroom, recreation room and multiple meeting rooms.

If you didn’t know, it’s our new senior center! A huge congrats to the Committee on Aging, the community, and the public and private partners that made this incredible leap happen. As a past board member, I know how long and uncertain this process was. 

Maybe you don’t think the senior center (aka Bella Vida – which means Beautiful Life) is of huge importance to you. If it’s not now, it may very well be in the future.

I moved to the West Coast after college, and saw my mom, who lived in our childhood home in the far west Chicago suburbs, once every year or so. We talked on the phone multiple times a week. 

Everything was always fine, until it wasn’t. I got a call from her next-door neighbors who informed me my mom really needed help. It was midnight and she was in their living room, eating crackers, sure her house was going to blow up. 

A heavy smoker her entire life, I later found out she had less than half her normal lung function. This had impaired the oxygen levels in her brain and literally made her temporarily insane. She had decided that the warning on her new oxygen machine – “do not smoke or be near open flame” – meant she shouldn’t use it in her house in the winter because the house had a gas furnace with a pilot light.

She was hospitalized and declared incapacitated. Lacking any current and correct legal paperwork, I had a tough time getting information from the doctors. Dealing with the banks and trying to get health insurance information was even worse, due to privacy restrictions. We tried, but mom refused to have caregivers in her home. Services in the “corn” as I call it were hard to come by. She lived, and was used to, a home 20 minutes from town via a two-lane highway through – yes – more corn.

Ultimately, after the hardest month of my life, my sister and I hatched a plan. Mom would be coming to Santa Clarita. My husband was going to be my “heavy.” After finally getting medical clearance, we flew to Chicago with three return tickets. Luckily, mom was really worn out, and as she would admit, women of her generation were used to taking direction from men. My husband Tom said “you’re coming with us.” She looked up from her hospital bed and simply said “OK.” 

Of course, this was during a record cold snap. She had a limited supply of oxygen (due to air regulations) when we were dropped off at the airport. We were one of the last flights out of O’Hare before they shut the airport down because they were having a hard time fueling the planes in the subzero weather.

Here in Santa Clarita we found a wonderful board and care facility. They helped her to learn and trust her new oxygen machine. They helped her bathe until she became strong enough to do it on her own. The gave her home-cooked meals that she had previously forgone due to being “too tired.” 

And they took her to the Senior Center.

At the Senior Center, mom made friends. A history lover, she chatted with veterans about her father, a World War II doctor. She discussed politics with a gentleman from a town right next door to our Illinois town. She thought she was really making out when people gave her their extra roll from lunch. And she heard about all the “good” places to live in town, once she got her strength back. Mom eventually did rebound and moved to a senior apartment complex where they also had fabulous services, especially transportation. We had many good years together. Before she passed away in 2015, she got to meet my daughter after she was born. 

The Senior Center made mom feel alive again. The services available here made it so I could still work and raise a young child while navigating medications, multiple hospitalizations, and all the not fun stuff of old age that no one tells you about. 

An amazing woman who sailed on the Queen Mary, went to college, and worked as a journalist, her time in Santa Clarita was, indeed, part of a Bella Vida. I hope many others get to enjoy the senior center with their loved ones.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among several local Democrats.

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