Josephine Atko skipped eating alone in her apartment yesterday morning to indulge in a "heart healthy" breakfast with her neighbors. Between nibbling a whole-grain muffin, she scanned the crowd for a glimpse of a uniform.
But the nurse mingling with yesterday's breakfast club in Burwood Gardens was hard to spot.
Nancy Stone, a registered nurse who will work full time at the senior housing complex in Glen Burnie, was dressed in casual blue instead of a white uniform.
Stone's choice of clothes reflects her attitude about the new job. She wants to serve as a friend, advocate and adviser, "to keep everybody here as healthy and independent as possible.
"I see this basically as a senior wellness program," she said. "By being here on time, hopefully we can try to prevent more severe medical problems."
The outgoing 44-year-old nurse was hired this fall by the county health department to launch a wellness program for residents at Burwood Gardens.
She has set up an office for the pilot program in the 200-unit public housing project on Shelly Road. Stone will work there five days a week to provide everything from free blood-pressure screenings to advice on common ailments.
"We think it's great," said Atko, 78, while munching a muffin with Eleanor Ireland, an 88-year-old retired nurse who moved to Burwood Gardens soon after it opened in 1971.
"There's a lot of times when you want to ask a question about your health, but you don't know where to go," Atko added.
Stone will be on hand to answer questions and refer seniors to appropriate services, such as physical therapy or the county Department of Aging's phone reassurance program. She also plans to run workshops on weight loss and nutrition, osteoporosis, sleep problems and diabetes.
"One big issue will be medication management because a lot of seniors are on medication and end up mixing drugs," she said.
The seniors who sampled low-calorie french toast and healthy muffins at yesterday's breakfast wanted to talk to Stone about everything from sore joints to symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. The breakfast was sponsored by the health department and cooked by Ruth Kershner, head of the agency's "healthy heart" program.
Kitty Dwyer, 79, an 11-year resident of Burwood Gardens, said Stone "will come in handy."
"Sometimes my toe bothers me, and she said she'd either wrap it or teach me how," Dwyer said.
June C. Waller, executive director of the county housing authority, said even a minor problem like a sore toe illustrates the need for an on-site nurse.
"Housing managers are not nurses," she pointed out. "They're not trained to handle something like Alzheimer's."
Waller, who said she's "thrilled to death" by the pilot program, hopes the health department eventually will place nurses in the county's four other senior housing projects. Health officials said they intend to earmark money to expand the program next year if interest remains strong.
Burwood Gardens is the county's oldest, federally financed complex for seniors. Many residents moved in during the '70s and are at least 80 years old, Waller said.
"There are people here who are getting quite frail," she said. "They may not be able to get out and go to the doctor, so they need as many eyes and ears out for them as possible."
Stone expects to be just that. To live up to her slogan, "the nurse is in," she foresees handling everything from loneliness to heart attacks. But most of all, she said, she hopes to help the seniors "live with the dignity they deserve."