A Legacy of Caring: Jean Eckert

In 1970, when JoAnn Gilbert was seventeen, the Eckerts moved in across the street. They embodied the saying “opposites attract”—Jean was social; Dick was reserved. Jean never hesitated to speak her mind; Dick tended to hold in his emotions. Jean was a meticulous planner; Dick was easygoing.

Within a year, these two very different, very loving people would become a second family to JoAnn. “At the time, things were a little rough in my home,” she tells me. “And Jean and Dick were a refuge for me.“ When her father became seriously ill, then paralyzed from the waist down, they were there for her. “Jean and Dick were just where I could be, where I could go—never mattered what I said, how I felt. It was an absolute safe place.”

It’s 2020 now, and it seems like there’s a shortage of safe places in the world. And that was part of why I was speaking to JoAnn. Jean Eckert left a lasting mark on the Sunny View Retirement Community in California and the Memory Bridge community, ensuring that the Memory Bridge program would continue at Sunny View in perpetuity. I wanted to learn more about this remarkable woman whose legacy included bridging people with and without dementia together—some of them people she’ll never meet, never know. I wanted to understand what drove her, and perhaps, in that understanding, to find a story of hope.

Jean and Dick Eckert, early in their life together

It is impossible to encapsulate a life in a single article, a single conversation. As I speak with JoAnn, the glimpses I get of Jean are in snapshots, moments captured in memory, fragments that come together to hint at a greater whole.

There’s the way Jean served as a sounding board when JoAnn got into an argument with her fiancé. “Jean lived by lists,” JoAnn says. So when she talked to Jean about the argument, Jean told her, “You’re going to write a list: the pros, your cons, and where you see yourself in ten years.” She and Dick called JoAnn’s fiancé, invited him over, and showed him the list. “And they were able to facilitate our communicating again.” JoAnn smiles. Happily married many years later, she and her husband George still joke about it.

Then there’s the way Jean and Dick put her through college. And helped her and George to buy their first house.

JoAnn tells me about Jean’s love of all things nautical, despite the fact that she suffered from intense seasickness. The way she learned woodworking so she could craft replicas of tall ships, building from blueprints, carving the pieces by hand. Her joy when she took home a gold prize from the 2000 Mariners’ Museum Scale Ship Model Competition for her meticulously detailed recreation of the British ship Nonsucha project that took her over 2,000 hours to complete.

And JoAnn talks about Jean’s “dessert first” philosophy, which she’s passed on to JoAnn’s kids. About the way Jean loved brownies and Life Savers—“but only the mint ones, not the fruit flavors.”

About the way Jean struggled after Dick was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Jean with her gold medal, awarded for her model of the Nonsuch. Left to right: Joanne Gilbert, Jean Eckert, Dick Eckert

Jean always had an intense drive to learn, to understand, to confront problems head-on. When her son Steven struggled with hyperactivity, she’d read, researched, spoken with a specialist—and the work had paid off. That kind of all-in approach was, JoAnn says, “always how Jean handled things.”

So Jean researched extensively, and Dick enrolled in trials at Stanford and UCSF, and they lived together in their home for eleven years after his diagnoses. “For the first…eight, nine years, she was research driven,” JoAnn says. “She wanted to delay it.”

But by 2011, Dick needed more care than Jean could provide. She made the decision to move him to Sunny View Retirement Community, where JoAnn was the director of memory care. She followed him a year later, as her own health declined.

“He never forgot her,” JoAnn tells me. “Not once.” But even though he recognized her, he couldn’t converse with her as he once had. For Jean, communication became a consistent struggle. At the heart of it, JoAnn says, was the fact that “she had trouble intellectually dealing with someone who could…not.”

Jean and Dick Eckert at their wedding

Dick passed away in 2014. Steven died the same year. Their other son, Peter, had died five years earlier.

Jean’s health, too was declining. But she continued to observe the people around her, to see problems and consider solutions, to look for ways to help. She saw what a difference the It’s Never 2 Late system made for people at Sunny View and purchased a second system for their assisted living program. And when Memory Bridge came to Sunny View, she connected with it deeply and personally.

“Jean really felt fiercely about the lack of communication with dementia residents and what she could see,” JoAnn tells me. “She loved the way Michael spoke. She loved his passion, because she was always passionate. She loved his upfront, bigger-than-life willingness to drive.”

So JoAnn wasn’t at all surprised when Jean decided to fund Memory Bridge trainings at Sunny View in perpetuity. “She saw the importance; she saw the results. There were other residents that were family members of people in the memory unit that received the benefits. And she saw that.” For Jean, pragmatic as she was, that was enough.

Jean and Dick Eckert on the day of his last flight with United, where he was a pilot for many years

Jean passed away in August. For Memory Bridge and the future residents of Sunny View, Jean’s legacy will live on as people with and without dementia find ways to connect more deeply with one another. For those who were lucky enough to know Jean, her legacy lives on in countless other ways: a love of the ocean, a tendency to eat dessert first, an endless curiosity about the world.

JoAnn tells me that as she went through Jean’s things after her death, she found a note her son had written to Jean. “I could always go to you for a smile,” it said. “No matter what else happened, I could go to you for a smile.”

Now that’s something we can all aspire to.

Jean Eckert

Based on an interview conducted with JoAnn Gilbert on November 5, 2020. All photos courtesy of JoAnn Gilbert.

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