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Valley Journals

Senior of the Year Gerda Saunders gives back to community despite great challenge

May 09, 2018 04:36PM ● By Holly Vasic

Gerda Saunders in her garden, on the swing, at her South Salt Lake home. (Courtesy of Gerda Saunders)

By Holly Vasic | h.vasic@mycityjournals.com

Gerda Saunders, a decade-long resident of South Salt Lake, just won the South Salt Lake Senior of the Year Award for 2018 because of her work in the community. Saunders’ dementia diagnosis didn’t slow her down and she pressed on in order to make the city a better place.

Years ago, when Saunders and her husband, Peter, moved into their South Salt Lake City home to downsize, two men they didn’t know carried heavy furniture inside and then introduced themselves as their new neighbors.

“That family is so amazing and they sing beautifully,” Saunders said about the Browns, the neighbors across the way who always jump in to help. Saunders and her husband got to know the family well over the years and they noticed a need. The Brown’s oldest son has cerebral palsy, and needed help from his younger brother, father, or whoever to carry him up the stairs to get him into the house with his wheelchair, Saunders witnessed.

She knew she had to do something, so she arranged a ramp to be built with community connections and support. At the time Saunders had just retired from the University of Utah as the associate director in Gender Studies and an adjunct professor in the English department. She had been diagnosed with dementia shortly before and assumed the stress of work was what was making her symptoms worse.

“I’ll just do this little project,” Saunders thought that summer. “That was really my last sort of project like that I was able to do.”

The project was much more than making the Brown’s home handicap accessible. Saunders had connections from the U that knew what to do. “We found an architect and he sort of specializes in retrofitting houses for disabilities,” she said.

On top of that, Saunders learned that all five children had to sleep upstairs on mattresses every night due to lack of space, because of mold in the lower level. Saunders recalled they took out moldy floor boards and replaced everything that was tainted by mold.

“They (the Browns) are incredible people, they are the people who help everybody in the neighborhood,” Saunders said. Through the project Saunders met Mayor Cherie Wood who was also able to help contribute to completing the updates on the home.

“It seemed very obvious to me that this was something that the neighborhood should help with,” Saunders said, and they did. 

Saunders, her husband, and two children moved to Utah from South Africa when their kids were young and first put roots in the Millcreek area. Saunders attended the University of Utah to receive her teaching certificate so she could teach in the state, though she was already a teacher, which lead to her being accepted in the master’s degree program and graduating with a Ph.D.

“They allowed me to transfer from the master’s [program] to the doctorate program,” Saunders said but it wasn’t her idea. While taking courses to earn her teaching certificate she took a writing class.

“I had a very bad story published out of that writing class,” she said. But someone saw her talent and that professor encouraged her to attend graduate school. “Then another teacher told me I should really go into the doctoral program,” Saunders said, so she did.

Her writing has opened up a new world for people who suffer with dementia and their family and friends who love them. Saunders’ memoir, “Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on my Dementia” caught the attention of KUER radio host Doug Fabrizio which evolved into being part of his show, “RadioWest” short film series. Saunders met Fabrizio many years ago when he interviewed her about her first book, “Blessings on the Sheep Dog,” and originally the filming was supposed to be for a single short but there was so much more to her story the series began.  Saunders also has a blog, Dementia Field Notes, as well as a website at gerdasaunders.com

The Mayor selected Saunders for this award for many reasons, she said.

“Gerda Saunders has been a longstanding resident of South Salt Lake. Her tenacious spirit is heard in her writing, both in her book and on her blog. Sharing her experience in the first person is providing the world with a rare perspective on aging. She truly is a remarkable woman and I am honored to recognize Gerda as the 2018 Senior Citizen of the Year.”