Assisted living worker documents residents’ lives

The Springs at Whitefish Life Enrichment Director Julia Sweeney on Friday, Dec. 9. 

While a lot of people spend a minority of their time with their community’s elders, Julia Sweeney has always been drawn to older generations, who she calls her teachers. Her curiosity around stories of the past pulled her into a career surrounded by clusters of aging societies.

“My mom, she’s Vietnamese. In her culture, her parents live with their children through adulthood,” Sweeney said. “So I lived with my grandparents when I was younger. And my grandmother, in essence, was my best friend.”

Sweeney learned through her grandmother’s hands — the same hands that packed a life and headed to America, that raised her mother and helped raise her.

Sweeney would watch her grandmother carefully combine the ingredients for Vietnamese egg rolls. During story time, her grandmother’s hands moved along with the plot line. She used her hands to show love without saying a word.

“Ever since I was young, I knew seniors had a story to tell,” Sweeney said.

Now, as the Life Enrichment Director for The Springs at Whitefish, Sweeney is working to tell the stories of the assisted living home’s residents and the work of their hands.

Her job title includes event planning. But as Sweeney puts it, “I make sure our residents have the best quality of life in their golden years.”

She finds bridges over the gaps in life age tends to create. For example, when a man who loved the mountains was no longer able to walk, they started driving the roads within Glacier.

Sweeney’s led her residents in paddle boarding on whitefish lake, skiing in the winter, Tai Chi in the mornings and painting at night.

She doesn’t do it alone. There are other Springs staff that balance the chaos and volunteers to socialize with the residents.

But the activity she won’t delegate is her most simple and sincere task — giving residents manicures.

“It’s not about the manicure itself, it’s about the process and time, and sharing things,” Sweeney said. “It’s just intimate, not only do I know about them, they know about me.”

The process is one she learned from her mother and grandmother in her childhood home. She was taught it’s a way to serve someone, to make them feel beautiful and loved.

If a resident’s not able to leave their room, Sweeney goes to them. Sometimes they’re joined by several other residents in quiet conversations, other times it’s one-on-one time.

Sweeney starts by massaging the resident’s hands before moving onto their nails as she learns about what that person accomplished throughout their life.

“Once I had a woman tell me, ‘I don’t want my nails painted, my hands are too ugly,’” Sweeney said. “I grabbed her hands and said, ‘These hands are beautiful, they brought two kids into the world, they created a business at a time when women didn’t work. They’re beautiful.’”

As the woman’s nails dried, Sweeney felt the need to document them and the story she saw through them. So she pulled out her phone and took a picture. She included a caption of what she had learned about that resident over years of seeing each other five days a week, then posted it on her Facebook.

Soon, other residents began to ask to have their life captured through the project Sweeney now calls, “These Hands.”

On a recent afternoon, Sweeney had her most recent photo added to the collection. In the image, a woman’s hands are resting on a pink towel, highlighted by the afternoon’s light. Though the woman’s husband had already died, her left finger still carries the weight of her wedding band. Her nails match the soft tones of the towel.

The hands belonged to a woman who had two children, loved to golf and loved to play bridge. She relied on faith and the idea of seeing her husband again after death.

“I’m so glad we had that time, because she passed away soon after — just days ago,” Sweeney said as she looked at the image. “I just thanked her so much for her being a wonderful teacher to me, and asked her if I could share her hands with the world, and she just kept saying, ‘thank you.’”

Sweeney said she hopes to one day make a book of the stories and images she’s collected over the years. But for now, she said she’ll just keep listening to the people she’s surrounded by each day.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at

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