Life Care Gang members, which meets Life at Care Center of Hilo, are front row, from left, Ted Miyahara, Janet Sasamura, Harriet Iyo and Jean Maeda; back row, from left, June Kunimoto, Butch Cox, Chris Ridley, Julie Matsushima, Richard Kunimoto, Amy Ichinose and Myra Kawamura.
By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
You always know where to find the Life Care Gang every night around 6. Just visit the lobby of the Life Care Center of Hilo and listen for the good talk and easy laughter.
That will be the “Gang,” a loosely organized group of caregivers that gathers each day at the Life Care Center for a potluck dinner and fun-loving camaraderie. They come to visit their loved ones who reside there. They stay to partake in the food and friendship.
As far as anyone recalls, the Life Care Gang has existed in some form or another for seven or eight years.
“This group has been together at least since 2010,” said Jean Maeda, who took care of her mother at the center until she passed away on New Year’s Day. “But I have an aunt there, so I kept on coming.”
The core of the Life Care Gang includes Maeda, “Butch” Cox, Richard and June Kunimoto, Ted Miyahara and the Takahashi sisters, Julie Matsushima and Myra Kawamura — all of whom care for their spouses, parents or relatives who reside at the Life Care Center. Others, like Harriett Iyo, no longer have a family member or friend to care for at the center, yet still come to where caregivers can find solace, empathy and friendship among their fellow caregivers.
“I join ‘em when I can,” said Mike Miyasaki, who wears a T-shirt with an image in remembrance of his son, who was murdered in 1994. Miyasaki regularly visits a friend at Life Care Center.
“She’s 92, fell and broke her hip, having physical problems,” he said.
The Life Care Gang is fully supported by the center’s administration.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Fred Horwitz, director of the Life Care Center, a 252-bed facility on West Kawailani Street that currently has about 240 residents. “We certainly encourage families to spend as much time as they like here and to enjoy the facility.”
Horwitz said family caregivers often face special difficulties providing daily care for loved ones in their waning years.
“They’ve been stressed as caregivers,” he said. “The friendship, the networking, really helps them, physically and mentally, especially the mental aspect of it.”
“It’s depressing seeing our loved ones in here,” said Iyo, whose mother died at the Life Care Center last year. “To come out here socializing perks one up.”
The group engages in lively conversation about their lives, relatives, friends, who’s who and what they’re up to. They exchange ideas and advice, recipes and health tips, gossip and news. And they eat. On Monday, Cox brought an elaborate luau feast with laulau, poi, lomi salmon, sweet potatoes and more.
“Come, eat with us,” Maeda offered to anyone who wandered nearby.
“We always had a group,” said Cox, who’s been coming for six years now. “We started with coffee and dessert. Now we pre-plan dinners.”
The group also serves as ambassadors of aloha in the lobby the center. “We try to greet everybody. We invite them in. We say good night to everyone,” Maeda said. “Everybody knows we’re here.
“So many of our (Hilo High) classmates have parents here; we could have a reunion,” she joked. Several in the group also share family lineage back to Yamaguchi Ken, Japan.
The Gang’s social ties extend beyond the nightly pot luck, too. They organized their first trip to Oahu together earlier this year, and on Monday, they were excitedly passing around the itinerary for an October excursion to Maui.
“A lot come and go,” Maeda said. “But the bottom line is, we’re all about the same age and we all connect.”
Email Hunter Bishop at email@example.com.