The band was in full swing playing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” out under the stars. The women, ten in all, were line dancing up a storm, their cowgirl boots clacking away on the deck, the white fringes of their Western-style shirts swaying in time. One step forward, two steps back.
It was that evening five years ago that four of those dancers decided to take another huge step forward—together—and one day live next to each other at The Villa at Riverwood, a Five Star Senior Living community just north of St. Louis, Missouri. This is the story of how these friends became neighbors and came to be known as “The Golden Girls.” It’s a great example of how even later in life, old friends can enjoy new adventures together when you find the right place.
How they met
You might say that Alvena Chrismer, Helen Finn, Ginny Foshage and Eileen Murphy danced their way into each other’s hearts. The four women met in 1993 at a country line dancing class offered at St. Catherine of Alexandria in North St. Louis County and hit it off right away.
“They were a very social group,” explained Ginny’s daughter, Pat Stolte.
“They had all lost their husbands, but they all loved dancing.”
Alvena, who died last year at age 104, was the oldest—and also the funniest. “She would often say ‘Age is just a number, and my number is unlisted,” laughed her cousin, Audrey Muenz. “She had all these witty sayings. Whenever she’d meet a man, she’d say, ‘I’ve got a new boyfriend.’”
Eileen traces her love for dancing back to the men’s club she and her husband frequented for many years. “We went dancing every week,” she said. “He was a great ballroom dancer. I was a jitter-bugger.” After he passed away, Eileen missed the fun and took up line dancing.
Helen said dancing and music were always a part of her life. “I liked swing dancing especially, and when I no longer had a partner to dance with, line dancing filled that void, and I met many new friends.”
Ginny, who passed away in May, came to line dancing by way of an aerobics class. “Our dad did not like to dance,” said Diane Meier, another of Ginny’s daughters. “But our mother did.” When Ginny took aerobics after her husband died, line dancing was one of the exercise routines, and the rest is history.
The four quickly became close friends, dancing together every Wednesday night and at area nursing homes, outdoor festivals and other venues. “We used to follow a very popular band here named Fanfare,” Eileen said. “We’d go to where they were playing so we could dance. We were groupies!”
They danced to “Sweet Caroline,” Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and other line dancing favorites. The friends wore red cowgirl boots, denim skirts and fancy fringe collars handmade by Eileen and their beloved dancing teacher, Joan Randazzo. Dancing kept them feeling young. In fact, Alvena, Helen, Ginny and Eileen danced well into their eighties and nineties, not hanging up their boots until 2016—a remarkable 23-year run.
“Ginny was a very good dancer,” Eileen said. “We all loved to dance. In fact, when we would go into a restaurant with our families, they would warn us, ‘Don’t do it here!’”
Diane remembered another time worrying about The Golden Girls’ wild side. “One New Year’s Eve my husband and I drove three of the ladies to a party. Then we drove home and waited, and didn’t come back to pick them up until much later. I thought, ‘Well, this is a switch—we’re driving our parents to the party and we’re the ones waiting up!’”
Big step forward: Catching “The Villa Vibe”
It was Ginny who first proposed a novel idea: What if the four friends could all find a place to live where they’d all be together? Kind of like “The Golden Girls,” the 1980s sitcom about three older women living together in Miami. “Ginny would say ‘Let’s all live in the same nursing home’ as a joke,” said Eileen. Kidding aside, becoming neighbors remained a “what if” among the friends for years.
Until one night in 2016, that is. That’s when they visited The Villa to dance at an outdoor event accompanied by a 17-piece swing band. That visit led to the women living together, not in a nursing home, but its very opposite, a lively, thriving community for older adults.
The women liked what they saw while dancing that night. “They’d never been here before,” recalled Bob Mogley, The Villa’s sales and marketing director. “But they liked us and our youthful vibe.” Eileen said that vibe is what started the ball rolling. “We started talking about how fun it would be to all live at The Villa,” she recalled.
Eileen was the first to move to The Villa, in early 2019, followed by Alvena, Ginny and then Helen. “I was apprehensive about leaving my home of 40 years,” admitted Helen. “But it was comforting for me to know that I had friends who could teach me the ropes while I was the new kid on the block. It was nice to reconnect and reminisce about the good ole days of line dancing!”
The group was able to enjoy a lot of time together as neighbors before Alvena died last October at age 104 and Ginny this past May at age 91. The friends were able to generate many happy memories of life together at The Villa, Eileen said.
“We enjoyed walks around the pond, and we shared a lot of meals in the dining room together,” she said. “We also visited each other in our beautiful apartments. They’re so spacious.” The friends also appreciated the many “extras,” as Eileen calls them: groceries and other errands taken care of, transportation whenever needed courtesy of Gary the van driver, a hairdresser every Friday morning. “And,” Eileen said, “every other Friday a glass of wine—there’s a traveling happy hour that comes to your door.”
“We offer between 150 and 160 activities a month,” said Bob. “That doesn’t even include Bingo—the residents run Bingo games on their own.” So, in addition to walks and visits and happy hours, the Golden Girls together enjoyed movie nights, ice cream socials, karaoke (The Villa has its own Kopy Kat Karaoke Klub) and scores of other activities—even Wii bowling. “I bowled 190 just last week!” said Eileen.
Helen pointed to the great meals and the genuine affection residents feel from Five Star team members. “The Villa is my home and home-cooked meals are a part of my daily life,” she said. “All the team members truly love the residents, and it shows. My family told me they are lucky that I can live here, and I am loved and doted on by a remarkable team.”
The Five Star lifestyle has been cherished not only by The Golden Girls but by their families, noted Diane and Pat.
“Our mom had a better social life than we have,” Diane laughed. “It started out as a joke, but it turned out great. From a family perspective, what was most important is that living at The Villa allowed our mom and her friends to maintain their independence.” Her sister, Pat, agreed, adding that knowing their mother had longtime friends nearby was reassuring to Ginny’s family. “When we couldn’t be here, her friends could be,” she said.
“Our mom chose to leave her home of 65 years and come to The Villa,” Diane added. “Her life continued exactly the way it had been. She just had a different key that she put in the door.”
“I know that when Alvena moved here, as a family we felt relieved,” Audrey said. “She was lonely after her husband John passed away, but here she had a whole new life.”
Calling all Golden Girls—and Guys
Any advice for others who wonder whether it’s possible for friends to reunite as neighbors in a senior living community?
“I would say, ‘Go for it,’” said Helen. “I’d remind them that friends remain together no matter what life throws their way. When things get tough, they find whatever possible way to be stronger together. Moving into a community where there were built-in friendships was a win-win situation for me. How could I go wrong?”
As the old saying goes, life is a dance. For these Golden Girls, moving to Five Star has been yet another swing around the ballroom floor, step by step and side by side. It goes to show that when you find the right place, anything is possible.
Shall we dance?
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