Working with seniors is “a calling,” says longtime staffer at Lenbrook in Atlanta

Eric Duke was only taking the job to help a friend. The Marietta resident was 24 in the spring of 1984 when he went to work at Lenbrook, the city’s first accredited continuing-care retirement community. At the time, the Buckhead facility had only been open for eight months.

On Wednesday, July 24, when Lenbrook marked its 30th anniversary, Duke was on hand as one of the longest-serving employees, and no one was more amazed than he.

“Honestly, I did not think it would be a good fit,” said Duke, 53. “I had worked with the original administrator on some labor projects, and he needed people he could count on. I came to work in the activities department, but I did everything.”

When the facility opened its doors, there were about 50 residents and only two maintenance personnel. Duke pitched in on a variety of jobs, including driving the shuttle bus and helping residents hook up phones and television cables.

“There were some floors where we did not turn the lights on because they were empty,” Duke recalled. “But they filled up quickly, and if anyone needed help, I was there. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time, people were just starting to purchase their own telephones — and they had to be touch-tones. I spent a lot of time explaining that!”

In 1986, Duke took over as the programs and events manager.

“I don’t think anybody in the early days realized the importance of an activities program,” said Duke. “I had a lot of tutoring and learned to listen when someone made a suggestion. The people here were all my teachers, and the program benefited from every resident.”

Implementing an activities program was just one part of the learning curve. Lenbrook itself was creating a new way of looking at retirement that included independent living, medical services and activities all under one roof — a continuing-care model that was novel in the early 1980s.

“In those days, when you talked about retiring, it meant going to a nursing home,” said Duke. “The founder, Jack Clark, started this new concept because his mother and father needed a place to live, and they weren’t ready for a nursing home. People were glad to be at Lenbrook and were so social, there was a bit of a party boat atmosphere.”

Duke formed an activities committee to get residents’ input. The group meets monthly to come up with more than 100 classes, field trips and events every month. They have organized visits to the High Museum and Stone Mountain, arranged for guest speakers and lecturers, hosted entertainers and choral groups, and held programs on health and fitness, but bingo and bridge are still big. They also encourage residents who want to speak on a favorite topic to get involved. All of the programs are recorded so they can be shown to residents who could not attend.

Today, Lenbrook is double its original size. It is home to about 450 residents who enjoy a fitness center, indoor pool, on-site restaurants, a library, an events center and gardens. The entire operation, said Duke, runs like a well-oiled machine that he can’t imagine leaving.

“Once I got to know the people here, my job got to be a calling,” said Duke. “They are inspiring. I don’t look forward to the drive in some days, but I so enjoy being here with them. There is never a dull moment. It’s a great place to be.”

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