WORTHINGTON — At an age at which many are content to sit back, relax and enjoy retirement, Ecumen Meadows resident Craig Stewart keeps himself busy helping others.
That generous spirit was recognized last week at the annual convention of LeadingAge Minnesota, the largest association of organizations serving Minnesota seniors. Stewart — accompanied by Ecumen Meadows staff Nancy Garvin, Denise Erwin and Cheryl Dinsmore — was presented with the statewide Volunteer of the Year award during the St. Paul event.
“I was proud and grateful,” said Stewart of the recognition, which came not long after his wife of nearly 60 years, Elizabeth, died on Jan. 19.
It was Elizabeth who inspired at least some of his volunteerism at Ecumen Meadows.
After moving from Chicago, Illinois to the Twin Cities in 1992, Stewart worked as an associate professor of speech and communications before arriving in Worthington with his wife in 2006. He made the move because his son and daughter-in-law were (and remain) co-pastors of what’s now known as Living Waters Covenant Church.
Craig and Elizabeth moved to Ecumen Meadows four years ago, residing in assisted living. Then, roughly two years ago, Elizabeth became a resident of the memory care wing.
It was about that time that Craig, now 87, began delving into research on the science of human memory, as he wondered why people forget what they forget and remember what they remember.
“Neuroscience divides memory into categories,” Stewart explained Monday afternoon. “Some believe that you can kind of reorganize your memory or slow the decline of memory loss with certain kinds of activities. A lot more has become known about activity inside the brain in the last two decades.”
For example, Stewart said, categories of memory can define why someone can remember the details of Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, but not what a television weather forecaster just said moments before.
As a product of his interest in memory and helping all residents in the Ecumen Meadows memory care wing, Stewart devised a reminiscence program that he described to be “as simple as your nursery rhymes or multiplication tables, counting backwards and singing songs from your own era,” among other mental exercises. He leads the program along with Dinsmore, who serves as activities director at the Meadows, and includes what’s described as a “wisecracking” hand puppet named Clara.
“Some are hits and some are flops — we change it every two weeks or so,” Stewart said. “The group in there changes every couple of weeks, too — sometimes you have a dozen or so, and sometimes you just have two or three. We try different things, and see what works and what doesn’t.
“It’s just a way to see if I can help … and help myself have an activity to do.”
It was Dinsmore, Stewart said, who wrote the “very flattering” letter that helped earn the statewide recognition. Stewart had earlier been recognized as Ecumen’s volunteer of the year; he’s now earned that honor from an association that includes a generous number of senior-serving organizations.
A short video about Stewart’s LeadingAge award also notes Stewart’s past volunteerism of helping immigrant children and adults learn how to speak English, his previous leading of exercise classes at Ecumen Meadows, assistance at Bingo events, giving of poetry readings, performance of comedy sketches (“They get a scattering of laughter,” Stewart said with a smile) and staging clown acts with the Meadows’ former maintenance supervisor.
Stewart has four children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild on the way. Elizabeth, meanwhile, died just 11 days before their 60th wedding anniversary. Even though she’s no longer part of the memory care unit, Stewart will keep coming back to lend a hand where he can.
“I’m going to do it until they close me down,” Stewart said, adding — with a small laugh, “which around here can sometimes come sooner than you think.”