Loving life at Maplewood
George and Phyllis Cohen
Navigating the changing currents – together
It’s Sunday afternoon in the Garden Level of Maplewood Park Place.Phyllis Cohen, who is living with Alzheimer’s, joins a gung-ho group of residents around the grand piano. For a joyful hour, they croon together, tune after tune.“Phyllis knows every Broadway song,” says her husband, George. “Her brain may be impaired, but the part that remembers music is still very much intact.”George claims he can’t carry a tune and “dared not even hum” in his household. But now, in these daily singalongs, he sits beside Phyllis and belts out every song – inhibitions cast to the wind.The Cohens’ story captures how couples coping with Alzheimer’s can navigate the changing currents together, despite residing in separate quarters. George has an apartment in Maplewood’s independent living, while Phyllis lives in skilled nursing, just an elevator ride away. A full-time caregiver looks after Phyllis, while George visits his wife every day.
Tying the knot in New York
George and Phyllis grew up in New York, George in Long Island and Phyllis in Brooklyn. Each graduated from Cornell University in different timeframes. Destiny took its turn in 1955, when Phyllis was a Cornell undergraduate and George, a law student.The scene of their meeting? A crowded intersection in the resort town of Long Beach. George was working his summer job as a traffic cop while Phyllis was riding in a car with a mutual friend.“My friend waved to me. I approached the car. I noticed Phyllis, and I did what I did with any attractive woman. I blew my whistle and asked to see her license and registration.”Soon the two were “going steady.” In 1958, they were married. After George’s two-year stint as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, the Cohens settled in northern Virginia and produced two children.
“I noticed Phyllis and did what I did with any attractive woman.
I blew my whistle and asked to see her license and registration.”
George gained renown as a government and then union-side labor attorney, representing a wide swath of jobs, from athletes and entertainers to teachers, steelworkers, and firefighters. In practice for 40 years, he argued five landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and more than 100 appellate and federal district court cases. George’s career reached its pinnacle with a federal agency appointment by President Barack Obama. In 2009, he was named to serve as the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a post he held until retiring in 2013.Phyllis worked at the U.S. Labor Department before shifting gears to become a master printmaker. In 1975, she led a pioneering group of women in founding Printmakers, Inc., and for the next 35 years, hosted a studio at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria. Today, her colorful woodcut prints are in museum collections, have been featured in Maplewood’s art gallery, and grace the homes of numerous patrons, along with the walls of George’s apartment.
In 2012, Phyllis was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Five years later, she was in the early stage of Alzheimer’s.The Cohens were living in Lake Barcroft in Falls Church, where they’d had a home for more than 50 years. George brought in a nursing aid to care for his wife at home. In July 2018, Phyllis fell and fractured her hip.“The prognosis for Alzheimer’s and a fractured hip is not good,” George says. “Her brain began to deteriorate. After her stay at a nearby rehab facility, I was told Phyllis would need more attention than a part-time caregiver could provide – and bringing her home was not a prudent decision.”George consulted with his long-time friend and family physician, Paul Schlein, who along with his wife Sally had recently moved to Maplewood. “Paul told me Maplewood had excellent skilled nursing,” George notes. “The care team here interviewed Phyllis and determined she was a good candidate for the Garden Level.”Maplewood’s sales director, Michelle Michaels, ensured that Phyllis could enter the Garden Level immediately while George worked through acquiring an apartment upstairs in independent living. Phyllis became a resident in August 2018, and George moved into his apartment four months later after redesigning it with the help of his friend Sally.
“Every morning, Phyllis and I are together.
It’s a comforting routine for both of us.”
Creating meaningful moments
“I can visit with Phyllis any time I want,” George says. “I press an elevator button and go from the fifth floor to the Garden Level, just seconds away. Every morning and afternoon, we’re together. It’s a wonderful routine for both of us.“I have every confidence in the care Phyllis receives in skilled nursing, plus her care team is highly knowledgeable and compassionate. I’m assured she is in good hands, every hour of every day.”The care team includes full-time nurses and certified nursing assistants, along with the oversight of Maplewood’s concierge physician, Dr. Gary Wilks.George, meanwhile, continues to pursue his many interests. He’s made friends readily at Maplewood and is visited often by friends outside the community. “My visitors’ perception of Maplewood? I’m living in a grand hotel! Two friends – both connoisseurs of fine food – visited me last Sunday for brunch. They were incredulous at the quality of the spread.”
“My visitors’ perceptions of Maplewood? I’m living in a grand hotel!”
George serves on Maplewood’s Finance and Budgeting Committee, which he describes as “a group with the authority to study issues and make recommendations to the board.” He also advises on topics and speakers for the community’s lecture series.Excursions into Washington, DC, are commonplace. An avid sports fan (his father, Leonard, was a sports editor and writer for the New York Post for nearly 50 years), George cheered from the stands at Nationals Stadium as the Nats chased their World Series win. He also frequents the Kennedy Center and has been involved in a collaborative workshop on Music and the Brain, recently convened by the Center and the National Institutes of Health.
Finding new sides
Maplewood is a favorite destination for the Cohens’ children and eight-year-old granddaughter Ilaria.Both Cohen offspring found their calling in the creative arts. Bruce, 58, is a film, television, and theater producer who worked for Stephen Spielberg in producing The Color Purple. Other credits include Academy Award winners American Beauty, Milk, and Silver Linings Playbook. Julie, 56, is a documentary filmmaker and television news producer. Most recently, she directed and produced Academy Award–nominated RBG, the much-lauded film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.George, meanwhile, discovers his inspiration in the remodeled kitchen of his apartment. Daughter Julie, whom he describes as a “world-class cook,” serves as coach. Best dish to date? Glazed salmon with basmati rice.“The kids got their mom’s creative DNA,” George quips. “But living at Maplewood, I’m finding new sides of myself.”