Lasting Family Connections Keep The Birches Community Strong…and Encore’s Pond Green

Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches

When Mike Butler moved to The Birches Assisted Living’s memory care neighborhood Encore in 2015, he was a Chicago area legend. He’d helped dye the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day every year since 1962.

St. Patrick’s Day 2016 would be the first time Mike couldn’t participate in the river dyeing. But his family decided to bring his favorite yearly tradition to him. They visited Mike’s home at The Birches with dye in hand, and transformed Encore’s pond into a bright green replica of The Chicago River.

Later that year, Mike passed away. His family was grateful they were able to give him one last experience that commemorated his role in this important piece of Chicago history. And The Birches team members who cared for Mike were honored they got to take part in this famous tradition that meant so much to Mike and Chicagoans everywhere.

The story could have ended there. But it didn’t. The Butler family has returned to The Birches every St. Patrick’s Day since Mike passed away to dye Encore’s pond green. And they plan to keep doing so for the foreseeable future.

“Dyeing the river was probably the most important thing in Mike’s life every year. So it keeps us remembering that special day for him. It keeps his memory going,” said Mike’s wife of 56 years Marlene Butler.

In fact, Marlene not only visits The Birches every St. Patrick’s Day, she volunteers at The Birches throughout the year. She helps Encore Director Katie Schaff Fagan with holiday parties and other events. She also helped plant Encore’s new sensory garden last year, and plans to volunteer in the garden again this summer.

“The Birches is wonderful. It just feels like a home,” said Marlene. “I was so pleased with the care they gave Mike. I can’t say enough about it, because it became a part of my life too. I call it my dementia family.”

But Marlene Butler is far from the only family member who stayed connected with The Birches after their loved one died. Family members visit, volunteer and even work at The Birches long after their family member passes away. Take Kathleen Harding, for example.

Kathleen’s mom Rita Smetana lived at The Birches for three years. Kathleen visited regularly during that time—so often that The Birches became like a second home to her too. When Kathleen’s mom’s health began to decline in 2014, she knew her mom didn’t have much longer. Simultaneously, she realized that she needed a second job.

Kathleen had a second job at a health club before her mom moved to The Birches. But this time she wanted something more rewarding, a job where she was truly helping people. And that’s when it hit her—she could work at The Birches.

She applied and was hired for a role as an activities assistant in Encore. At the same time, Kathleen also decided to enroll in a certified nursing assistant (CNA) training program. Eventually, she used her CNA training to become a resident assistant in Encore too.

According to Kathleen, the best part about getting a job at The Birches when she did was that she was able to spend as much time as possible with her mom at the end of her life.

“I started working here in March 2014, and she died in May 2014. So it was kind of nice, because I got to see my mom until the end of her days. Very bittersweet, but it was a blessing in disguise to come here. It all just kind of fell together,” said Kathleen.

Seven and a half years after her mom moved to The Birches, Kathleen is more a part of The Birches family than ever. She still works in Encore as an activities assistant and resident assistant. And during her shifts, she often sees other past residents’ family members stop in to visit, volunteer or work.

“I think it’s really cool when I see other family members come in,” said Kathleen. “I see Marlene and a few others every now and again. It’s inspiring that they still come. It’s like a second home for me, and probably them too.”