When Bickford of Burlington director Julie Hoschek was told her Life Enrichment Coordinator, Tricia Westlake Durbala, was chosen as February's Employee of the Month, she said Durbala and her first cousin, assistant director Heidi Westlake, are the Dynamic Duo at Bickford.

Here then is February's Dynamic Duo of the Month. They're part of the reason Burlington's Bickford just got runner-up for the company's Branch of the Year award.

We sat down at Bickford to chat with all three women, who made it obvious they love their jobs — they joke constantly and cackle like a hutch full of happy hens.

Durbala works for Hoschek and celebrated two years at Bickford in December. She was born and raised in Burlington.

"I did stray away for awhile," she said, "but I ended up ultimately coming back."

She graduated Burlington High School in 1987, attended Southeastern Community College and went on to Palmer College of Chiropractic Technology in Davenport, where she earned her Chiropractic Technician certificate. She worked for Jeff Pence for about seven years at the Advanced Chiropractic Center in West Burlington.

"I got pregnant and decided I wanted to be a domestic goddess, or, as my husband called me, Peg Bundy, his little couch doily," Durbala said. "I stayed home for 13, 14 years, had another child."

After working in pediatrics dentistry for Michael Mathews, Durbala ran a daycare center for 13 years.

"I loved it," she said. "I've always been in a caregiver role."

"Tricia's amazing," Hoschek said. "Our residents love her. She has that fun attitude, a positive attitude every day. Tricia and I have been friends for quite a few years and our daughters play sports together, so we traveled around them. When the Life Enrichment Coordinator position opened, she was one of my first options because I know her personality well, and I thought it would be a really good fit for that position."

Heidi Westlake was born in Burlington and grew up between Mediapolis, Wapello and Burlington. A 1993 Burlington High School grad, she moved on to Southeastern Community College — to play volleyball.

"I went to school to play volleyball," she said. "I decided I wasn't a big fan of being in school, so I went to New Jersey and was a nanny for a year. Algonquin, New Jersey. I came home and I was at my cousin's gymnastic meet, and a lady said she needed somebody to come in and work for her, a new doctor had moved to town. I said sure, great, and I started working for a wonderful doctor, Dr. Dan Peasley."

Westlake became Peasley's office manager until he took an injury-induced break.

"I met my husband in the meantime, we had children, I decided to be a stay-at-home mom and for 14 years I did in-home daycare," she said. "There was a position open here at Bickford. You walk into a place and you're not quite sure whether you want to be here or not, you know? You walk into this place, it's the most loving, warm, homey, doesn't feel like your average facility. It's a home. It's inviting. I decided it was the perfect time to enter back into the workforce."

Westlake has been at Bickford since April 2017; she started out doing activities in Bickford's memory care center.

"When the AD position came open, she's a go-getter, so she slid into it," Hoschek said. "We all work well together."

"I started out being Tricia's assistant with activities and helping Jules with marketing," Westlake said.

"They're my Dynamic Duo," Hoschek said. "They both started out in activities; now Heidi's stepped up as assistant director. The community knows us when we walk in, we're usually dressed silly, out marketing and promoting Bickford and all it has to offer."

"We have fun. I don't care where you work or what you do, you like going to work. This is another part of the family. You don't just get close to the residents, you get close to the residents' family members," Westlake said. "When one of them passes, you miss the family because you're used to seeing them, too. But if you can just bring a smile to someone's face, how can you not love that? 'Enriching happiness' is their motto and my family's always teasing because I'm always so happy I'm finally putting my happiness to work. It's paying off!"

Bickford was started was because of Mary Bickford.

"The Bickford family didn't want to put her in a facility-type setting," Westlake said. "Assisted living back in the 1980s was all brand-new. They had the means and decided to build the first Bickford, the first assisted living, down in Kansas. On one side they built for assisted living and the other side for Mary B, which is memory care, for dementia and Alzheimer's care."

Today there are nearly 60 Bickfords, called branches, around the country.

"Mary got sick with Alzheimer's and they built the first one in Olathe, Kansas," Hoschek said. "We've just taken over four places in Minnesota. We're going to keep growing. It's quite a feat to have a family-owned business in this day and age. Bickford is an amazing place to be, to work."

So, why was Durbala originally picked as Employee of the Month?

"Because they're as crazy as I am," she said, nodding at Westlake and Hoschek.

"We're all crazy," Hoschek concurred. "We have to be, to work together. Look at us; how could we not be crazy?"

"I'm the innocent one, she's the tall one," Westlake said, pointing at Durbala.

"I love Burlington. I'm very glad we got to raise our children here. I think it's a wonderful community," Durbala said. "Julie and I were friends because of our daughters, they played softball and volleyball together. You kind of get to that point in your life, where as soon as you walk out of work, you think, 'What the hell am I doing?' It was a great job, I enjoyed what I did at the dental office, but I didn't feel fulfilled. Julie talked to me about coming here, and it's been wonderful. I can't express how much I enjoy it. Not just because I get to work with my friends and family, but the residents become family."

Are seniors harder to care for than children? A chorus of "Oh,yeah!" ensued.

"Sometimes they know they don't know," Durbala said.

"With kids, you're teaching them, and so you know that they don't know what it's supposed to be," Westlake said. "You kind of expect it with seniors because you forget sometimes. There could be a moment of clarity and they act OK, and all of a sudden —"

"— they're really confused and they know they're confused, and they get frustrated," Hoschek continued. "You see it in their eyes. Sometimes it comes as fear, sometimes it comes as sadness, so that's what makes it harder. Especially when they have Alzheimer's or dementia."

The women agreed that the hardest aspect of their jobs is when one of their residents dies.

"The downfall is when people pass; that's the only downfall," Hoschek said.

"That breaks your heart," Westlake agreed.

"We just had a very dear resident pass away," Durbala said. "And their kids, too; it's funny to call them kids, because their kids are older than me, and they left today and were hugging me. So it's not just the residents that become family. The sad part is, we don't get to see their kids, even though they're our age. I hate to call them the kids, but that's how I know them, as the kids, and you lose them, too."

When a Bickford resident dies — or any parent at any senior care-related location — their children no longer have a reason to visit, and they move on, leaving the caretakers behind.

"But it's great to be able to be a positive part of someone's life, and to bring them joy," Durbala countered. "I'm very relaxed with the residents, where most of our residents, I think, are relaxed with us."

"We get to enrich their happiness in their golden years," Hoschek added.

"Coming to work feels like going home," Westlake said.

Once a month the business section will focus on an employee in the area. The Employee of the Month will showcase the excellence of the everyday laborer, the engine behind a community. For suggestions please email jgaines@thehawkeye.com.