Making Beautiful Music in an Assisted Living Residence

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Music has been an important part of Helen May’s life and thanks to the person-centered approach to care in her new home, she continues to enjoy it.

When asked about her childhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., Helen May will happily recount the fond times she spent with her father, a professor of Industrial Arts at the University of Michigan.  “He played the trumpet,” she beamed.  There is no doubt that her father’s love for music inspired Helen’s lifelong passion for music and the arts. “He was a great influence on my life,” she said.

Today, she in turn shares that passion to also inspire her fellow residents and staff at her current home, Arleigh Burke Pavilion, the assisted living and healthcare residence of Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean, Va.

After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Piano and a Master’s Degree in Music Theory from the University of Michigan, Helen married her high school sweetheart, Don.  “He was very accomplished and brilliant,” she said of the mathematician and scientist.

Assisted Living Resident Helen May with Album of Friend

With a lifelong passion for music, Arleigh Burke Pavilion assisted living resident Helen May was highly involved in the Sigma Alpha Iota international music fraternity through which she met different world-renowned artists, such as Jessye Norman.

Over the years, Helen served as a providence officer with Sigma Alpha Iota, the international music fraternity.  She would travel to different universities to install and support the various chapters.  During one particular visit to Howard University, she met Jessye Norman, who was a charter member. Although Jessye eventually rose to fame as a world-renowned contemporary opera signer and recitalist, the two developed a mentoring relationship that has continued to this day.

“She has the best voice in the world,” said Helen. This is just one of the many relationships she has established and treasured with talented musicians, including renowned child prodigy Carlos César Rodriguez and Ann Schein.

In 1990, Helen celebrated her own milestone as the first recipient of the Sigma Alpha Iota Philanthropies Distinguished Service Award, the organization’s highest honor. In addition, she had the honor of becoming the Founding Chairperson Emeritus of the National Symphony Orchestra Young Soloists Competition, which is held each year at the Kennedy Center.

Helen and Don enjoyed most of their years together in McLean, Va. After his passing in 1999, she briefly moved to a senior living residence which she was quick to add “was not nearly as nice as Arleigh Burke Pavilion.”

When referring to the community she has now lived in for over 10 years, it is evident how much Helen has appreciated the person-centered care she has been offered.

Arleigh Burke was added to Vinson Hall in 1991 to address the increasing needs of its residents and the non-military community, and thus qualified it as a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC).  Though the community opened its doors in 1969, its origins date back to the post-WWII era when there was an evident need to support the widows of sea service veterans with housing and income assistance.  As a result, the Washington Chapter of the Navy Officers Wives Club formed a foundation for raising funds to provide housing. Over time, some of Vinson Hall’s apartments were combined to create larger, 1-2 bedroom units to accommodate couples.

It was this same foundation led to the addition of Arleigh Burke and the community’s third unit, The Sylvestery, which is also open to the non-military community and provides assisted living to individuals with memory impairment.  As residents throughout Vinson Hall enjoy extensive amenities and beautiful surroundings, they look forward to even more changes in the summer of 2014 when 75 new independent living luxury apartment homes will be added along with a new community center featuring a bistro, library, convenience store, auditorium and classrooms.

In addition to these perks and the quality care, what has been particularly important for Helen is the staff’s effort to embrace and celebrate each resident’s unique interests. John Shorty, Arleigh Burke’s social services coordinator, said, “I recognized in Helen a very outstanding woman who had a lot of background in classical music.”

She made such an impression that John invited her to lead a music appreciation group for other residents. “Helen’s life has revolved around music,” he said.

He also learned one of her favorite amenities at the community is its public broadcasting station, Classical WETA 90.9 FM.  “I must confess that it keeps me up late at night, because I get so engrossed in the wonderful music that the hours just fly by,” she said with a smile.

For the staff, Helen could not be more of a perfect fit at Arleigh Burke and the Vinson Hall community.  “She is just constantly out and about at programs that we offer here and she has a wonderful spirit and a zest for life,” said John.

“My advice to others is always get involved and join things,” Helen added.

It is not just the residents, however, that embody this spirit of getting involved.  In coordination with the Wounded Warrior Project, the community will within the next year become one of the few CCRCs in the nation offering Transitional Housing to Wounded Warriors.

With a supportive home that shares her personal philosophy and allows her to inspire others with her love of music, it may be safe to say that for Helen, life at Arleigh Burke has been “like a song.”


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