Gail Barnes enrolled in nursing school when she was just 17. After graduation, she landed a fast-paced nursing job in the intensive care unit of a Connecticut hospital — every day was different, and she loved the constant adventure and opportunities to learn from the hospital’s doctors.
A few years later, a family friend offered her the opportunity to run a nursing home that was about to open in a neighboring town. She turned up her nose.
“I was 20 years old. I liked the fast pace of the hospital,” she said.
But she reluctantly agreed to give it a chance, knowing the hospital would always have jobs available — and to her surprise, it was the perfect fit. “I found I just loved working with the elderly and hearing their stories about what they’d accomplished,” she said.
That was just beginning. Today, Barnes is the lead licensed professional nurse (LPN) in the memory-support wing of Vi at Bentley Village’s care center — and in August 2017, she’ll celebrate her 22nd anniversary with Vi.
When Barnes was in her 40s, her father announced his plans to retire to Florida. Her sister had agreed to relocate with him, and Barnes’s oldest daughter was already enrolled in college on the Atlantic coast of Florida — so Barnes and her youngest daughter decided to make the move, too.
Shortly after the move, Barnes was hired at Vi at Bentley Village, and the family settled in for life together in the Sunshine State. But life would soon throw Barnes’s family a series of curveballs that changed everything.
Shortly after the family’s move to Florida, she lost both her father and sister to unexpected illness. And less than 10 years later, in 2007, her oldest daughter died in a car accident. Barnes was getting dressed for work — her normal 3 to 11 p.m. shift — when she got the news.
“Everything we’d planned for was gone,” she said. “The reasons we moved here were just gone.”
Upon receiving the news of Barnes’s loss, her fellow Vi at Bentley Village employees sprang into action — including Susan Cavaliere, the care center administrator.
“When the news came to me, all I could think was, ‘What can we do?’” Cavaliere said. “So many people drove immediately to her home just to circle around her and support her.”
It was the least they could do for a coworker who’s always been there when they needed her, Cavaliere said. “Everything Vi has given to Gail, she gives back to other people,” she said.
Life went on — it had to, Barnes said. Her youngest daughter had married and had a child; Barnes took care of her grandson a lot in the time after her oldest daughter’s passing. In the years that followed, one year at Bentley Village just drifted into the next, she said, and she never had any reason to consider leaving.
“You never get over this kind of grief, but as hard as it all was, I realized people needed me,” she said. “My grandson needed me, my family needed me — and the people at Bentley Village needed me.”
She threw herself into her work, giving her all each day. Through the years, she got to know not only the residents living in memory support, but also their loved ones.
“You really get to know the residents through their families and the stories they tell,” Barnes said. “These people were war heroes and pilots — there are so many things we never knew about. What they’ve accomplished is utterly amazing…it really makes you think.”
The relationships she builds with residents’ loved ones is part of what sets Barnes apart, Cavaliere said. “They seek her out — she’s got a great smile and gives such assurance to the families that she’ll take care of things,” she said. “Everyone just loves her. They’ll come back and ask to see her even after a resident has passed away.”
After 22 years working at Bentley Village, Barnes is considering retirement — eventually. Reflecting on her service, she recalls all that’s changed. When she first moved to Florida and began working at Bentley Village, she made $11.50 an hour. There were no computers, so all her charting and paperwork was done by hand. The care center acted as a wellness center before the community had a standalone wellness center of its own.
Though the “how” has changed, she says, the “why” hasn’t: Vi at Bentley Village’s high standards and expectations around care are unwavering. That’s part of what she loves about the job. “You can work anywhere as a nurse. But I haven’t stayed because of the work — I’ve stayed because of who I work for,” she said.
Day after day, though, it’s the residents that push her to do her very best.
“One of the residents always calls me to her side — she doesn’t know my name; she just calls me her little girl. All she asks is that you sit with her and hold her hand. It makes her happy,” Barnes said. “They look forward to seeing you, even if they can’t remember quite why. They’re my motivation.”