Lessons from Half a Century at Sierra View Homes

Nancy Petinak, circa 1981, dancing with a resident. “This was a really proud moment for me,” she said. “This resident suffered from PTSD and never talked or smiled. Over time, music brought him out of his shell, and he even danced. This picture captures a miracle.”

A lot changes in 44 years, but some things never change. No one can attest to this better than Nancy Petinak. The 79-year-old Reedley resident recently retired from her role as Activities Director at Sierra View Homes Retirement Community, a career which spanned an impressive 44 years.

Happy retirement, Nancy Petinak! You are loved. Thank you for your service!

Nancy played a pivotal role in the growth of Sierra View Homes from a small skilled nursing facility to a full-service continuing care retirement community. Nancy’s career is a source of great pride for Sierra View, as she exemplifies the unusual longevity of the organization’s staff, and more importantly, the service-oriented heart found beating beneath the everyday workings of the community.

When Nancy first began at Sierra View in 1975, she little expected that it would be the first and only employer of her career. “I was just hired because I could play the piano!” Nancy laughed. The director at the time, Art Bergthold Sr., wanted someone who could incorporate music into activities for the residents, and Nancy set out to do just that. She added music into workout classes, sing-alongs, performances, and weekly church services.

Before long, she had discovered that this was more than a job, it was a life’s work. “I realized it was a mission, and that God had placed me here for a reason, to help people and make their lives better each day,” she explained.

Nancy, circa 1982.

Over time, the methods she used to fulfill that mission evolved. “For many years, I focused on bringing events to Sierra View’s residents, like a Country Fair fundraiser that drew thousands of people from the neighborhoods in Reedley,” she explained. “I told our residents, if we can’t bring you to events, we’ll bring the events to you!

This philosophy, and her activity programs, were groundbreaking by necessity. “The year I started, activity programs had just begun to be required by the state, and innovations like assisted living and memory care for dementia patients didn’t exist yet,” she said. “Skilled nursing served a very wide variety of ability levels, from people who just needed a bit of assistance to Alzheimer’s residents who entered with extreme cognitive challenges.”

Nancy, circa 1982.

Thus, almost by accident, Nancy became a pioneer of dementia care. She established Sierra View’s Special Needs program, which laid the groundwork for Sierra View’s current Memory Care, transforming a dining room into a “neighborhood” with centers focused around everyday activities like cooking, laundry, sewing, and a home office. “We saw an immediate difference in our resident behavior,” she explained.

She recalls one particular resident, a former newspaper editor, who came into Sierra View angry and lashing out at the staff. However, at Nancy’s suggestion they added a typewriter and desk to the office area for him, and his behavior changed overnight. “He was suddenly very industrious, and typed all day long – it was like he was back to work,” Nancy said. “When we read what he was typing, it wasn’t always relevant, but it was clear that he was typing his feelings out. His family noticed an immediate improvement. They were so grateful that he was finally content and at peace.” Her program was so successful, in fact, that she visited other communities and spoke at conferences to teach about best practices in dementia care.

When Sierra View Homes’ dedicated Marden’s Place Memory Care wing was built, Nancy’s role pivoted once again, beginning to focus even more on the social needs of residents and their families. “I spent a lot of time mentoring families, dealing with individual concerns, walking residents and their families through power of attorney issues and disputes – basically helping families to understand what was happening to their loved ones,” she said. “But one of my favorite things was to sit with people and sing with them.”

In fact, over 44 years, Nancy has found that music is one of the constants. She helped bring the iPod Music program to Sierra View’s residents, where residents are provided with an iPod tailored to their individual favorite music. This has had special success in Sierra View’s Memory Care, where residents show marked improvement in happiness while singing along to their favorite tunes. “Music and scripture and prayer are the things that are never damaged by Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Nancy explained. “I’ve always told families that, and they seem to find comfort in it. Music, God’s Word, and prayer all speak straight to our heart, and that never changes.”

Another thing that doesn’t change is the service-oriented heart in Sierra View’s staff. “I’ve been blessed to work with a group of people who share my mission,” said Nancy. “Sierra View seems to draw people who want to make residents’ lives better every day, and I’ve been honored to work with many people who have really made a difference.”

Likewise, she has met incredible people in Sierra View’s residents. “One of our residents invented the little clip on pens so that you can hook it to your paper. Another invented a revolutionary design for airplane wings. We’ve had doctors, lawyers, missionaries, and Olympic medalists,” she said. “Sierra View is full of a wealth of stories and wisdom and history, just there for the asking.” So her advice to the younger generations after her? “Ask.”

Some things change – buildings rise up and organizations grow, and foundational staff like Nancy move on to new adventures. But the music, the heart of Sierra View Homes, and Nancy Petinak’s legacy, will always remain.