home icon

My Brother, the Retirement Home Clown

After losing his loan-officer job, he found a calling: bringing joy and smiles

By Stu Watson | March 4, 2014

It was the week before Super Bowl Sunday and the residents at the Atria Applewood assisted living facility were excited about prospects for their beloved Denver Broncos.
 
“Then here comes Pete in this ridiculous huge hat,” says Atria resident Gene Hawkins, 88, speaking about my brother, Pete Watson, 61. “There isn't anybody in this place who doesn't love seeing him come down the hall. He makes such an effort to entertain us and keep us feeling good about ourselves.”
 
These days, Pete does a little bit of everything for more than 100 Atria residents in his full-time job as the facility’s Engage Life Program Instructor and driver.
 
(MORE: How One Alzheimer’s Caregiver Copes)
 
Hawaiian Shirts and a Cockroach Costume

The titles don’t truly describe Pete, though. These do:
 
Hawaiian shirts. Outlandish hats. Inflatable palm trees. A cockroach costume at Halloween. Just Pete being Pete.
 
Nikki Crouse, Atria's Engage Life Director, recalls that recently, roughly 50 residents were seated, waiting for a high school band to perform, but snow had delayed their arrival. “Talk about being able to bring the clown out of Pete,” Crouse says. “Pete said, 'We're going to play classical music,' and then he pretended to be the conductor of the orchestra, waving his arms for 30 minutes. He was telling jokes, keeping them entertained so they didn't get frustrated and bored.”
 
The Unlikely Path to His Encore Career

Pete didn't plan this encore-career step. He left college with a degree in audiology and speech pathology, stocked stores with cigarettes, sold floor covering and mortgages. Elder care? Pete?
 
“It's a matter of circumstance,” Pete says, reflecting on the path to landing lucky in the job he says he was always meant to do.
 
(MORE: Pivot to a Second Act With Purpose)
 
“If I'd found this in my 20s, I would've done something completely different with my life. But there's no reason you can't do it late — ride the wave.”
 
Indeed. Life, like a flooding river, delivered him here. In our phone calls over the last few years, I realized that Pete had been blessed by misfortune. Forced career change killed the old Pete and delivered him to new work that feels to him a lot like heaven on Earth.
 
Mortgages and Alzheimer's

A casualty of the recession, Pete found that unemployment steered him true. Before losing his job as a loan officer for the First National Bank of Arvada, he had helped many borrowers in their 70s and 80s resolve questions about home equity loans and reverse mortgages.
 
“They knew that I had patience and understanding,” he recalls. “I worked well with them and I had a good time with it.”
 
Five years ago, Pete started watching his father-in-law, George, slip behind the veil of Alzheimer's. To cheer up George in the Scottsbluff, Neb., memory care facility where he was living, Pete would bring along his dog, Rico, on the three-hour drive north from Denver.

(MORE: 22 Inspiring Quotes on Generosity)
 
Key Role for His Dog

Pete noticed how much other residents also enjoyed seeing Rico, and saw that as a sign. So he began taking Rico to retirement facilities in Denver and eventually to Atria (known as Morningstar before a recent ownership change).
 
“I started walking up and down the hallways with my dog, and I had a blast,” Pete recalls. “Bringing joy and smiles to people in these institutions, you walk away thinking, 'Hey, that was fun.’”
 
He started volunteering at Atria — a lot. Crouse says she was most impressed by “his exuberance and excitement and pure joy for being here.”
 
Volunteer Work Becomes a Paid Job

The first chance she got, she hired Pete. The job is relatively low-paid (he makes $12.50 an hour), but, for Pete, it’s not about the money. His wife has a good job selling medical software and travels a lot, which gives Pete the freedom to spend extra time at Atria, going above and beyond the call of duty.
 
Although Pete works a regular schedule, he often raises his hand to cover for other Atria staff on weekends and holidays — or to just pop in with his dog on his day off.
 
“I think, ‘I wonder if the people at Atria are having fun?’ So I go in and see,” he says. “What am I going to do, sit at home and watch TV? I'm glad every day when I get to go to work.”
 
Patience and Positivity

Atria resident Bruce Polich, 91, a retired journalist, says Pete is dedicated, charming and positive. “Pete shows incredible patience in dealing with older people that are infirm,” Polich says.
 
Polich says he has known theater people — and Pete is theater. “He wears hats. He has fun at what he does. He enjoys the interchange with people. Frankly, I wouldn't be able to do that,” says Polich. “He seems to thrive on it.”
 
Deb Frederick, executive director at Atria Applewood, says she's thrilled to have Pete on board. “He's one of the first names you hear from residents on satisfaction surveys,” she says. “I was most impressed when he went to Hawaii on vacation and he sent every single resident a postcard.”
 
Asked about the postcards, Polich says: “Yeah, he did send postcards. I got one.”
 
Pete, always humble, hadn't mentioned it to me. He did, however, recently tell me about taking a wheelchair-bound resident to visit her family last Dec. 25.
 
“That was Christmas,” he said, pausing to compose himself. “That was Christmas.”
 
 
Stu Watson has written for The Oregonian, Seattle Times, Businessweek, Anchorage Daily News, Oregon Business Magazine and a variety of websites.