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Ahern: Meet Smith Village’s ‘Florence Nightingale’

Updated: April 25, 2013 6:17AM



Berniece Buttinger seems to live according to the adage that age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

At 94, Buttinger doesn’t mind her age at all, and as for what matters, she chooses to focus on others.

“I just think people should be more generous with their time and themselves, rather than focusing on me, me, me, me,” she said. “It is so easy to help others, so easy to help carry things, for example. These are the little things I can do automatically. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people.”

Buttinger, who lives in the Smith Village complex in Chicago’s Beverly community, practices what she preaches. She volunteers two days a week in the Smith Village general store, delivers mail and brings newspapers to her neighbors and also helps organize its library.

However, one of her great loves is being able to use her nursing skills. Buttinger was a licensed practical nurse for 45 years and is more than willing to help residents with minor medical issues.

Buttinger is so keen on helping other residents that Smith Village administrators see her as their “in-house” Florence Nightingale, said Amanda Mauceri, Smith Village’s associate executive director.

Buttinger, who is a widow, was married to her husband, Joseph, for 60 years. When their three children were small, she went back to school part time until she became a nurse. She began by working in hospitals but before long started a career with the Visiting Nurses Association of Chicago.

She still remembers many details about her patients, and with tears in her eyes, remembers a sweet, 12-year-old boy who was dying from bone cancer. Such memories are sad, but overall Buttinger refers to her life as being lucky.

“I grew up during the Depression, and there were 10 of us in my family,” she said. “We had a garden and a cow and some chickens, and I guess that’s how we got by. I was in high school and my high school was two miles away. I didn’t have the nickel for the bus, so (in cold weather) I had to wear long underwear with cotton stockings over them.

“When silk stockings came in, we couldn’t afford that, so we made do,” Buttinger said. “We would go to the Salvation Army to get clothes, and we would get shoes once a year. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I went through, but I’ve been so lucky, all things considered.

“Physically, I may have problems, but I am certainly capable of thinking and talking and I can volunteer at the store or help others. Some people here have questions about their wound care or don’t know how to change a dressing. I’m ready and willing to do that without any problem.”

Buttinger moved to Smith Village in 2007, after her husband passed away. She chose not to live with her children because she had her friends and felt her children had their lives to live, too.

“People here are not millionaires,” she said of Smith Village residents. “We’ve just worked hard for whatever we’ve got. At one point, we were all strangers here, but we have a community now where we have our friends.”

Looking ahead, Buttinger would like to keep on living the life she has at Smith Village. She successfully battled bladder cancer, and her last biopsy was cancer-free so she sees her future as one filled with hope.

Her father lived until his late 80s and her mother until 92, so Buttinger feels genetics are on her side. She said she does not fear death.

“I worked my last five years (as a nurse) with a hospice program, when I was already 70,” Buttinger said. “That taught me a lot about people, and if I were to have a stroke, for example, I would just hope it won’t be on the right side so that I can talk.

“If the good Lord is willing to give me time, fine. You just have to be able to cope with what you are given. I’m happy here. This has worked out just beautifully for me.”

Smith Village is a retirement community at 2320 W. 113th Place. For more information about it, visit www.smithvillage.org.



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