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Brookston group home aide retires after 51 years

Denise Beargrease watches Vera Nelson read a card during her retirement party. Beargrease is married to Nelson’s great-nephew. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

There was a knock at the door while Vera Nelson recounted her years working at the Peterson Colonial Homes.

"I want to say goodbye to Grandma," said an eight-year resident standing outside the conference room.

He waved goodbye, before leaving in a car to go to work.

"They all call me Grandma," said Nelson. "I don't care."

It may have been the resident's last chance to see his former caretaker. Nelson, 91, retired from her post as a domestic-aide worker at the Brookston group home in July, closing the door on 51 years of caring for the physically and mentally disabled.

Nelson almost always worked nights during her career at three different care facilities. Her listed duties included laundry, checking on residents, cleaning and baking at night, and preparing meds and breakfast in the morning. However, she also put in a lot of hours playing cards and dominos with the residents she took care of. Over the table during the late hours of the evening, she would build a reputation as a source of security.

"She was a stable influence on a lot of the guys here," said Julie Knochenmus, one of the day workers at the Colonial Homes facility. "She felt totally safe with them and they felt totally safe with Grandma here."

Knochenmus said a lot of the residents lived there under drug-court commitment. People who had trouble functioning in the busier sections of society would find less accessibility to harmful substances in more rural communities. One of Nelson's favorite tenants was ordered to live at the home after a case manager said the man needed to get off the streets in Duluth and Superior — too much access to alcohol.

"Chris and I spent a lot of nights playing rummy," said Nelson. "He came here and never left."

Both Nelson and Knochenmus remember Chris always available to help out the caretakers. After eight years at the home, he died of lung cancer. While Chris spent his last few days in hospice care, he requested his finals days be spent at Peterson Colonial, a place he considered his home.

Nelson does recall a few dramatic experiences while taking care of residents, like the time a woman ran down the road naked, and broke windows in the home. More recently, Nelson's been on the receiving end of some of those incidents, hitting her head on a wheelchair after trying to help someone into bed.

"He fell against me, and I fell and gashed my head," Nelson said. "There was bleeding, it was just pouring."

She came away with 13 stitches in her head. Because her brother died from a similar incident recently, she said it was a scary experience. Most of Nelson's memories however, aren't as dramatic. Instead, they are filled with the unhurried stasis of life's day-to-day monotony. Knochenmus said that's important to places like this.

"It gives them a sense of stability. Places like these gets them (residents) off the street and gives them a home setting and home care they wouldn't get otherwise," said Knochenmus. "Most have lived on their own and weren't consistent in taking their meds. This provides that oversight to help them."

Before she lived in Brookston, Nelson grew up an hour south of Duluth and later lived in the Twin Cities. While almost her entire life has been spent in Minnesota, she was born in 1927 in Denmark. Her parents moved to the U.S. eight months later and spent Christmas Eve in New York City. They would celebrate New Year's Eve in Askov, where years later she would meet her husband, Gordy.

Despite her decades of dedication to the care facilities of rural Minnesota, Nelson doesn't see her tenure as anything special. Saying she doesn't "see her job as significant," she points instead to the services the home provides as being the most important.

"It's just like coming home," said Nelson. "They're all good people here. It's kind of like a big family."

Last summer, Nelson fell and broke her wrist. That latest injury was the tipping point for her, retiring later that month. She only lives a block down the road however, and walks to the post office every day. Sometimes she stops by the home.

"It's to keep me young," she said.

About 91 years young.

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