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Helene Hagenmayer was retired and living in Palmyra and ready to start the next chapter in her life. She put her home up for sale, but it sold quickly. Helene was unexpectedly in-between a place to stay.

“I heard from a friend that someone’s mother was a resident at the Birchrock Castle Community,” Helene recalls. “It was close to where I wanted to be, so I put myself on the waiting list here.”

A resident of Birchrock’s Independent Living (the Birchrock Castle Community has Independent Living apartments, townhouses and Assisted Living) four years now, this 88-year old raves about the many conveniences here. She has access to a doctor, hospital, pharmacy, restaurants, shopping and even the YMCA, where she participates in a water aerobics class. She has a car and still drives herself.

“I didn’t have friends when I came here, but I have a lot of them now,” she says. “There are so many people here that you can meet in independent living. In the afternoons between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., some of us gather in the activity area with a cup of coffee and just talk. If someone has a problem, we’ll figure it out.”

A lifelong crafter, Helene always loved to work and stay active. These days, she hosts a craft session at Birchrock’s Independent Living twice a month. Helene doesn’t consider herself an artist, but the canvases on the walls of her apartment show otherwise.

“I just like to putter around with paint,” she says.

Helene was born and raised in Stuttgart, Germany, then lived in Bern, Switzerland for eight years as a young adult.

“I was a milliner – that’s a person who makes hats,” she says, “so I first apprenticed in Germany and then worked in Switzerland. In those days, Marshall Fields had an exclusive boutique in Chicago, the 28 Shop, where they sold high-end clothing. They bought the hats that we made in Switzerland.

When she was 28-years old, one of Helene’s friends came back to Europe from living in the states, so Helene took her place. She applied for a green card and achieved her U.S. citizenship five years later.

“I really wanted to go to Australia, but I got a job as a manager at a dress shop north of Chicago and I loved it. I stayed with the husband and wife owners and never left. I never got around to getting married and having a family.”

Along the way, Helene picked up some furry children, and ventured into the world of dog training and competition. She’s been at it for thirty years now with plenty of awards to show for it.

“I don’t like dogs with nothing to do,” she says. “They have their time to play, but I also want them to behave.”

Her current dog, a standard poodle named Sealie, is not trained for competition yet. For now, she’s Helene’s pet.

“I like the breed’s personality. They are smart dogs, but laid back. And they don’t shed.”

This spring, when Helene takes her faithful companion out along the walkway of the Birchrock Castle Community, she hopes the 500 tulip, crocus, grape hyacinth, jonquil and narcissus bulbs that she planted with the help of some friends last fall are in full bloom.

“People with a walker can enjoy the flowers and there’s a bench along the path so they can rest when needed. We have a lovely spot of nature here, if the squirrels didn’t dig up the bulbs!”

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