Resident bakes cookies as strategy for self-care

Vena, left, delivers the dish of cookies to her neighbor, Norita VanWart, also of the Village of Summerhill.

Norita VanWart and her husband, Al, couldn’t feel luckier having Carolyn Vena as a next-door neighbor.

Besides Carolyn’s cheerful demeanor and her continual willingness to lend a hand, Carolyn is a prolific cookie baker. Vena incorporates baking dozens of them, all kinds, twice a week. It’s a big part of her self-care routine.

As a full-time caregiver for her husband, Rich, who has Alzheimer’s disease, Carolyn treats the activity as a form of meditation.

For caregivers to improve their overall well-being and reduce stress, Alzheimer’s Association vice president of communications Yarissa Reyes suggests, “Do an activity you love.”

The activity Carolyn loves most is appreciated by the VanWarts, her Village of Summerhill neighbors. Norita doesn’t bake as much as she used to.

“I love getting cookies, and Al loves getting cookies,” Norita said.

Vena started baking as a teenager with her sister. Every year around the holidays, they would strive for the goal of baking 150 dozen cookies, turning the kitchen into a cookie-making factory. After the oven turned off and the cookie sheets were cleaned, they’d package them up and deliver them to family, friends and service people, like the mailman and dentist.

When the two had kids, they kept up the tradition. The husbands would take the kids sledding or bowling so the sisters could focus on just one thing: no multitasking, which was a luxury in a time of childrearing.

“Nobody was in the kitchen except us,” she said. “This was our time, and we’d put on the music and sing and bake cookies. It was a wonderful time for us to be nobody’s wife or mom or anybody else. We could just be us.”

Vena channels those times when she’s in the kitchen now, making her famous magic cookie bars, with graham cracker crust, a layer of condensed milk, chocolate- and butterscotch chips, pecans and coconut. Or maybe she is in the mood to make a simple vanilla cookie with dried cranberries and walnuts for her neighbors who like them. Other go-tos include chocolate chip and white chocolate-macadamia nut.

One thing that doesn’t vary is her use of butter. She never substitutes it with margarine or shortening.

“You want to use real butter,” she said. “There’s a difference in the flavor. Butter is so much richer, and you’re not eating a cookie because you want to watch your weight, so you want to use butter.”

She finds further satisfaction on a sociable level by mailing cookies to family and friends. Her most-requested cookie from out-of-town family is the M&M ones with multicolored sprinkles.

No packaging is necessary for her neighbors, though. She just walks a plate of them over, such as with the VanWarts.

They have their preferences, too.

“We like chocolate chip over here,” Norita said, mulling it over before adding, “or else butterscotch chip or peanut-butter chip.”

In the 13 years the VanWarts have lived in the Village of Summerhill, they’ve had two other next-door neighbors who pretty much kept to themselves. But when Carolyn and Rich moved in a year ago, things improved. Before running to the store, Carolyn frequently calls Norita to find out if she and Al need anything. She often brings over samplings of her Italian dishes, such as stuffed zucchini. And she hand-delivers her latest baked-goodies from the oven.

Norita and Al love getting the cookies, and Al now refers to himself as the Cookie Monster.

“I’m really, really happy that they moved in next door,” Norita said.

Giving them to an appreciative audience is one of the most enjoyable parts for Carolyn, knowing others will enjoy them.

But it’s mainly a way for her to find calm.

“As a caregiver, you may find yourself with so many responsibilities that you neglect taking good care of yourself,” Reyes said.

Besides, Rich always is telling Carolyn to relax more and to not take things so seriously, Carolyn said.

The artistry of cookie-baking, experimenting with flavors and different shapes, requires Vena’s full attention and takes her mind off everything else.

“Devoting all of my attention to the creativity lets me get away from the things that prey on my mind,” she said. “It helps me relax and not be too tense.”

Staff writer Julie Butterfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5254, or julie.butterfield@thevillagesmedia.com.