Scientists have found that as people age, their health declines and social networks atrophy (as peers die), which can make the elderly less happy.
Iola Emilia Gulino was born on September 23, 1922, to Celestine (Regnetti) and Emilio Gulino, Italian immigrants who came to America alone at age 15. Her parents met in a sewing factory in New York. She had two brothers, Vasco and Ateo Gulino, whom she loved dearly.
Iola was a kind, intelligent, generous, optimistic, witty and loving woman who spent her life making others happy. She attended two years of business college—not typical for a woman in her era. Iola grew up in a warm, loving and encouraging family environment where her father built a tailor shop onto their Cincinnati home so that he would never need to leave his wife’s side. Celestine developed a phobia to the outdoors (not well understand by medical personnel at the time) after her 2-year-old son died in her arms while at home.
In 1947, Iola married William Wehmann and they raised four daughters and two sons. She enjoyed holidays and any time spent with her family. She was so proud of her children. Iola—called Mickey by her friends—especially loved candy, books, cats and flowers. She enjoyed shopping and playing cards with family and friends. Iola was a witty woman whose subtle sarcasm brought smiles to those who knew her. She was lighthearted and fun. The first thing she offered to anyone who entered her home was food and drinks—and she was persistent! She hated all foods that were red despite her Italian heritage, a source of humor to those who knew her.
In 1998, after 50 years of marriage, she became a widow. In 1999, through her cardiac rehabilitation, she met a wonderful man named Joe, and they enjoyed over a decade of laughter and fun. When not in each other's presence, they spoke on the phone every evening at 9 p.m., despite their failing health.
Iola had many grandchildren and great grandchildren. Along with her children, they were her greatest pride and joy in her life.
Iola suffered serious health problems throughout her adult life, most notably breast cancer at age 60 and a quadruple heart bypass at age 78. Through it all, she knew no limitations and remained happy and active—making the most of every day. In 2008 she began a journey into dementia. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law for seven years throughout the changing stages.
At times she spent brief periods in respite at nursing facilities. It was there during visits that the sad lives of lonely and isolated residents were witnessed—many forgotten by family and others who had no family. While items that made her smile were taken to her by family, other residents had no one to bring them gifts. This experience was the impetus behind Smiles for Seniors.
On March 25, 2015, Iola succumbed to dementia surrounded by her caregivers. Iola modeled love and kindness through example throughout her lifetime. There is no better way to honor her memory than to continue her legacy of kindness, joy and generosity by bringing smiles to other seniors.
The late Iola Wehmann, mother of Smiles for Seniors founder Barbara Wehmann.
Dedicated to enhancing quality of life for older adults, people with disabilities, their families and caregivers
Dedicated to helping seniors resolve legal and long-term care problems
Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
Smiles for Seniors was Started
by psychologists Dr. Barbara Wehmann and her husband, Dr. Edward Lentz. But this was not a professional mission—it was deeply personal. As Barb’s mother, Iola, slipped deeper into her seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, there were brief respite periods when she was a resident at nursing homes.
“It gave me more experience seeing the day-to-day life in nursing homes,” Barb says. “In some, I saw residents just sitting in a chair or wheelchair, with no interaction or stimuli. I left in tears each time—it seemed like a cold, end-of-life waiting area for many of the residents.”
While Iola lived in a nursing home, Ed and Barb would take her small gifts—a bracelet, a photo album, a pair of fuzzy socks—and they saw the joy on her face when she was given those things. Looking around, they noticed only a few residents had visitors. The staff said that when people moved into the home, family and friends sometimes visited at first and then tailed off—too often stopping altogether.
“I knew that dedicated staff tried hard to alleviate the isolation and loneliness that many residents faced. But having worked on an in-patient psychiatric unit myself for two years, I knew that the number of residents far outnumbered the staff, resulting in constraints on even the most kind-hearted professionals,” she says.
Barb made Iola a box full of magnetic dolls, costume jewelry, change purses, etc.—safe items that kept her busy and entertained. She would ask for this box every morning, and when her language was gone, they continued to bring it out. Its many treasures gave her such daily joy. “I’d watch her wear the jewelry, sometimes wearing a dozen necklaces and bracelets at the same time,” Barb says. After Iola’s passing on March 25, 2015, Barb sought a way to bring some joy to other elderly people.
“At Christmas, I saw advertisements about groups organizing and taking gifts to nursing home residents. Such acts of kindness warmed my heart, but I wondered who remembered the residents during the other 11 months of the year—those who had no family or friends. I remembered my mother’s legacy of kindness, compassion and generosity, and this was the impetus for Smiles for Seniors.”