The Two Marys: 99-Year-Old Women Volunteer At Johnson Memorial Hospital

Mary Guglielmo was born on May 11, 1917, in New York City. Mary Alsing was born 16 days later in Ontario, Canada. Their lives began far apart and took different paths, but decades ago they both wound up in the same place: as members of the volunteer corps at Johnson Memorial Hospital.

Today, Alsing and Guglielmo are legendary at the hospital. At age 99, both still work two shifts a week. Their paths at Johnson don't cross very often: Guglielmo works Mondays and Thursdays in the emergency room, and Alsing works Tuesdays and Wednesdays in dietary and in the office. But the staff, impressed by their longevity, enthusiasm and similar birthdays, know them as The Two Marys.

Guglielmo, who lives in Stafford, has logged more than 24,000 volunteer hours, a record at the hospital. Alsing, who lives in Somers, is the longest-serving volunteer, having served at Johnson for 40 years.

"When I know it's Monday and Thursday, I jump right up and I'm ready to come. I enjoy being with people. I enjoy helping people," said Guglielmo. "I came from a large family. It came naturally to us."

Alsing's devotion to helping people also goes back to her childhood. As a teen, she and her two older sisters worked at a camp for underprivileged children. "You met people from all walks of life," she said. Three of the campers were taken in by Alsing's parents, who helped raise them.

Mary Guglielmo

Before Guglielmo started school, her parents moved the family to Stamford. "New York was no place to raise children," she said.

She grew up in a household with seven sisters and three brothers. Guglielmo's mother died when she was 9. To help raise her siblings, Guglielmo dropped out of high school. Mary married Frank Guglielmo at age 21. The couple had two sons, Tony and Frank, who both went to UConn. Tony is now a longtime state senator based in Stafford. Frank lives in Maryland.

Guglielmo was a housewife, and her husband worked as a postman. When Frank died in 1982, Mary moved to Stafford. "My son and his wife were here and I wanted to be close to them," she said. But then she got here and asked, "What do I do now?" That's how she wound up working shifts in Johnson's emergency room and she loved it right away. "I intend to stay there until these legs won't carry me," she said.

Guglielmo loves interacting with patients but she said she lets the patients' moods determine her approach. Some want company and some don't. "They're in pain and need someone to talk to. I enjoy being with someone and being that someone to talk to," she said. Others, she added, "aren't feeling good and don't want idle talk. ... They're all good people. I know deep down they appreciate it."

She's seen a lot in her years of volunteering, but she is good at coping with it. "I do what I do and then when I get home, I let it all go," she said. "You have to let it all go and go in the next day."

Her faith in God helps her outlook when working with patients. "He determines everything. It's all up to him," she said.

Mary Alsing

Alsing wanted to be a nurse when she was young. Circumstances made that career impossible. Alsing was married young, was widowed young and was left to raise her 1-year-old daughter alone. To help make ends meet, she took in a boarder, a schoolteacher. The boarder offered to babysit if Alsing wanted to take secretarial classes. She did, and wound up working as a secretary at a board of education in a city in Ontario.

During a period of professional frustration, she had a plane layover in Hartford, and would up spending the day in the city. "I went for a walk and came across the education building. I walked by and thought, 'I'd like to know how they operate,'" she said. "It was lunchtime. I went in and said, Can I talk to the superintendent?' I was very impertinent."

She wound up in a nice conversation with an assistant superintendent. Then she caught her flight home and sent him a thank-you note. A few weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail offering her a job in Hartford. She jumped at it. "I had to be here in three weeks, and I was. I had to go to Toronto for a meeting at the consulate. I had to take two physicals," she said.

Her daughter was 14 at the time. Alsing worked for the education department in Hartford for about eight years and got married again. Then her new husband, Carl Alsing, wanted to move to Somers. So she retired. "I didn't want to commute," she said. But she wanted something to do.

Forty years ago, a friend asked Mary and Carl if they wanted to join her as a hospital volunteer. Both did. "Nursing is what I wanted in the first place," she said. "It wasn't the same, but it was in the same family. I just want to help sick people. I think it's filled a big void in my life."

Both volunteered together for 19 years, until Carl was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. "He was very, very unhappy. He didn't want to stop. He didn't want to admit he had Alzheimer's," she said.

She continued to volunteer on her own, through her husband's sickness and death. The activity, the contact with patients and friendships with co-workers keep her chipper, she said. "It's a very friendly lot here," she said. "I look forward to visiting with all the patients."

When asked about memorable experiences at the hospital, Alsing said many patients complain about their conditions, but she cheers them up. "When I tell them my age, they immediately withdraw their complaint," she said.

Alsing, however, said often she forgets how old she is. "I don't dwell on it. Life just happens," she said.

Benefits Of Volunteerism

Lisa DeGray, the hospital's director of volunteer services, said that volunteerism has an impact on volunteers' quality of life. "The individuals who do that have more meaning in life," DeGray said. "Mentally they are more astute. They are not as depressed as they get older."

DeGray's beliefs echo the findings of a 2007 report by the the federal Corporation for National & Community Service, which states that people "who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer. ... Older volunteers are the most likely to receive greater benefits from volunteering, whether because they are more likely to face higher incidence of illness or because volunteering provides them with physical and social activity and a sense of purpose at a time when their social roles are changing."

DeGray said the 150 volunteers at Johnson, who log about 17,000 hours per year, provide service that adds up to a $350,000 annual savings to the hospital's budget.

The impact of the presence of volunteers, DeGray said, affects everyone in the hospital community, from the patients all the way up to senior management. Hospital president Stu Rosenberg agrees.

"Every time I see Mary [Guiglielmo] she asks me, 'What are you going to accomplish today?'" Rosenberg said. "I tell her, I have my list right here, Mary."

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