Longtime Family Ties director plans to retire

IRON MOUNTAIN — They’ll miss the people who come to Family Ties Adult Center each week, some for a few hours, a day, a few days, the entire week.

They know many of these participants, as they prefer to call them, won’t miss them, at least not for long. Most who spend time at Family Ties are dealing with some form of dementia or other health condition that affects memory.

So while the Family Ties setting and activities can help them feel secure in a fun environment, they’re challenged to recall individuals.

That reality never made working with these people less rewarding, less satisfying — or less enjoyable, said Tammy Tomassucci, director of the program.

“There’s tough days, but there’s very, very good days … if you can just get one spark from these people, it’s beautiful,” she said.

“I just wish everyone could feel this way about their job … I get back more than I give.”

In April, Tomassucci will retire after almost a quarter-century heading Family Ties. Program aide Catherine Parker will depart as well next month after 10 years with the agency.

While both said they have good reasons to step away, that didn’t mean it was an easy decision.

Especially for Tomassucci, who called joining Family Ties in the 1990s the “best opportunity of my life.”

Tomassucci came to Family Ties after doing home health care. She’d always wanted to work with the elderly, saying “that’s kind of my niche; I love being with them.”

But it became personal for her as well. Her father, Bob Watts, had vascular dementia that progressed beginning when he was 78 and she lost him in 2022 at age 85. Her mother, Dolly, has Alzheimer’s and is in a care facility.

“She’s pretty much non-verbal now,” Tomassucci said, “but she still smiles.”

A program overseen by the Dickinson-Iron Community Services Agency, Family Ties is designed to offer respite for the home caregivers of people with dementia or other debilitating diseases. It gives the caregiver some time on their own to do errands, perhaps have lunch with others or just relax for a few stress-free hours.

While at Family Ties, participants can play games — Thursday it was Yahtzee — and do other activities aimed at keeping them stimulated and engaged. They have a nutritious meal and interact with others, a good way to combat the social isolation many with dementia often face, Tomassucci said.

They also can get a shower if needed — some homes lack the accommodations to do this easily — and even have finger and toe nails trimmed and painted by staff to “make them feel special,” Tomassucci said.

“This option allows the participant the opportunity to remain in their own home, living in familiar surroundings, while at the same time supporting the family’s needs,” DICSA states on its website.

After starting in 1989 in a church basement, Family Ties moved to the Crystal Lake Community Center and then the YMCA before coming to its current site in the DICSA building at 1238 Carpenter Ave. in Iron Mountain about eight years ago.

The setting has the day care room surrounded by DICSA offices and other staff, so participants can be better monitored, Tomassucci said. The program operates from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Family Ties can accommodate about 12 individuals at a time, to maintain a ratio of three to each staff member. But since most don’t use the service daily, they can see much more in a week’s time, Tomassucci explained. Some don’t stay the entire day, either. “It just depends on what their needs are,” she said.

Most come from Dickinson and Iron counties, but they will accept some from Wisconsin when openings allow, she said.

She estimates hundreds of people have come through the program over the decades. They build relationships that last for years, not just with the participants but their families as well until their conditions advance too far for what Family Ties’ level of care can handle, Tomassucci said.

“Probably the hardest part of the job is telling them (caretakers) they (participants) can’t be here anymore, their needs are too high,” Tomassucci said.

They also have developed support in the community, with volunteers such as Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church women bringing in treats or helping to lead activities and games. Agencies such as United Way of Dickinson County have been a great help as well, she said.

“There’s just so much community love,” she said.

But Tomassucci will be 62 this year. She truly wants to “spend more time with family” — she has three children, sons Chris and Nicholas Tomassucci and daughter Emilia Hodgins. Nicholas and Emilia, with spouses Caitie and Ben, respectively, each have a daughter now, her first grandchildren.

Her husband retired from the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center five years ago. She wants time for day trips with him and to get more involved with Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

And there’s her mother, still dealing with Alzheimer’s. Tomassucci would like to be able to visit her at any time, not just after the day’s shift is done.

Plus, she said, “It feels good to leave while I’m still loving it,” she said.

Brynn Billings, who started at Family Ties in 2020 as a Bay College student intern, will be taking over as director.

“I have very big shoes to fill, but I’m very excited … I feel very lucky,” Billings said.

She has about 20 years of experience with the elderly, including home health care and about five years at Maryhill Manor in Niagara, Wis.

“I’ve always known this was something I was meant to do,” Billings said, adding, “I love having a one-on-one relationship with the families.”

Parker, the program aide, will retire April 15. She, too, has a long history in elderly care, working 20-plus years in an adult day care in downstate Michigan before relocating to the Upper Peninsula.

She’ll miss the daily interactions with the participants, getting “to serve others — that’s my heart,” Parker said.

“It’s an awesome place to work,” Parker said of Family Ties. “… The dynamics here are so fun, it’s unbelievable.”

Tomassucci’s last day will be April 12. She said she knows she’s leaving Family Ties in good hands with “a really great team.” And she’ll continue to lead the Alzheimer’s support group for families and caregivers on the third Thursday of each month.

Tomassucci said of stepping away, “it’s probably going to be more difficult for me (than them) … It’s your identity for so many years.”

But she later added, “I think I was really blessed to have been here.”


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