Thriving at Wartburg

At Wartburg in Mount Vernon, multigenerational, aesthetic programs add up to the wider community’s commitment to life and joy as it cares for its elders.

Tucked away behind a residential neighborhood in Mount Vernon, life abounds on a bucolic campus with a storied past. 

Wartburg is an innovative senior facility at the forefront of intergenerational living. It offers assisted and independent living residences (including pet friendly accommodations) as well as nursing home, palliative and hospice care. 

There are short-term inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation facilities with a real-life apartment and a car where people practice daily routines like unloading a dishwasher or navigating a bathtub or vehicle. There are both medically based or companion home-care services, adult day care and support groups for caregivers. Wartburg is also in the process of building a memory-care center.

“We are considered a continuum of care,” Rose Cappa-Rotunno, vice president of institutional advancement, says of the full spectrum of services available at Wartburg.  The multilayered environment contributes to a vibrant campus, but there’s also a special magic that is unique to this facility. It comes from a host of caring people who are bucking convention and thinking outside the box.

Wartburg has, it seems, always been in the caring business. The verdant 34-acre woodland campus was founded in 1866 as The Wartburg Orphans’ Farm School, a home for orphaned children of the Civil War. 

In response to the changing needs of its aging orphan residents more than 30 years after its founding, Wartburg (named for the castle in Germany where religious reformer Martin Luther once sought refuge) increased its services and began housing seniors. By 1969, Wartburg was the first institution in Westchester County to provide three levels of elder care — independent, intermediate and nursing home. Over time, Wartburg has morphed into the senior facility it is today, one focused on creativity and community. 

“We want to make Wartburg feel like a center for music and art,” says Cappa-Rotunno. “It’s so, so beautiful here. People say ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was back here.’ We want to encourage people to come use the campus.”

The expansive grounds inspire creative programming, helping to entice the community at large. To that end, the team at Wartburg set out to create “community days” that take full advantage of the property’s natural grandeur.

When summer hits, the syncopated drum- beats and soulful sounds of “Jazz in June” emanate from a stage set up on the property. For “Music Under the Stars,” doo-wop tunes provide the soundtrack for a classic car show. At the Coffee House Music Festival, people sip java and take in a concert of alternative rock and indie music. During Music on the Meadow, community members, many sprawled out on picnic blankets, mingle with residents. And at the annual Fall Festival, children play, local vendors sell their wares and the farmers’ market is full of pumpkins. 

The festivals reflect a history steeped in music and performance as well as caring. At the end of the 19th century, Wartburg founded the Boys’ Band, which over the next several decades went on to perform concerts throughout the Northeast. (It would eventually include girls.) Since 2017, Wartburg has partnered with the nonprofit Institute for Music and Neurological Function (IMNF), which conducts research, education and training programs using music therapy for people with a wide range of neurological conditions.

Wartburg was featured on PBS’ “The Visionaries” series, hosted by actor Sam Waterson (“Law and Order”) in an episode that exhalted the facility’s concept of creative aging. 

“They have discovered something truly awe-inspiring,” Waterson said in his introduction. “It is this: Joy is a byproduct of the creative process. If you do something new — paint, dance, even something as simple as beating on a drum, those vibrations fill the room and they feel like joy.”

Launched in 2009, Wartburg’s internationally recognized Council for Creative Aging & Lifelong Learning Program — the focus of “The Visionaries’” episode — was created to offer more art-based therapies for residents on all spectrums of cognitive and physical abilities. A network of enthusiastic volunteer professionals head programs on everything from music and dance therapy to quilting, writing, painting, ceramics and oral histories. There’s a free, community-based choir, puppetry with students from Sarah Lawrence College in neighboring Yonkers and  African-drumming sessions led by skilled musicians.

Wartburg will also be collaborating with local artists to create rotating exhibits in the nursing home for an array of visual stimulation as well as a chance for the artists to exhibit and sell their work.

All of these efforts contribute to a festive, life-affirming atmosphere, full of artists and community members, college students and children. 

During the pandemic, while indoor programs that rely heavily on outsiders are on brief hiatus, the beauty of the campus has been used more than ever. Residents head outdoors for music programs, barbecues and outdoor painting sessions.

In the early days of Wartburg, the vast grounds also included farmland where fresh produce and dairy were sourced for nutritious meals. To honor that vestige of the past and take advantage of the land, Wartburg is in the process of obtaining funding for a community garden  not only to create fresh produce but to draw in volunteers. “There’s always been something growing here,” Cappa-Rotunno says.

Residents of Wartburg may even get a chance to rub elbows with celebrities.

“We have had the campus used in several productions,” including the recent CBS series “Madam Secretary.” (Wartburg has also been scouted by the network’s “FBI:  Most Wanted.”) “I think having activities like that makes it exciting to live here,” Cappa-Rotunno adds. 

To reinforce the intergenerational living model, Wartburg has forged partnerships with youth organizations like the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester Inc. and collaborates with a number of institutions of higher learning. Besides Sarah Lawrence, these include Mercy College, Monroe College and Westchester Community College.

It all adds up to the wider community’s commitment to life and joy as it cares for its elders.

“And If you happen to outlive your resources, we don’t kick you out,” Cappa-Rotunno says. “It is our mission to take care of the people entrusted to us.”

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