Friendship at First Sight
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Friendship at First Sight

Aug 4, 2021

Helen Starlight and Ellen Meli knew they were beginning a wonderful, caring friendship almost immediately. Ellen recounts the day, just a few months ago, when Helen accidently bumped into her. Ellen says she was almost knocked over, but the sincerity and warmth in Helen’s apology, in just a few soft-spoken words, said it all. Shortly after, they requested to become roommates and they truly feel blessed to call one another roommate and friend.

They share a number of things in common. First and foremost, each woman is a proud mother and grandmother. They are also both women who worked outside of the home for many years, helping to support their families. Helen, who speaks English, Spanish and Hebrew, was an office manager for her husband’s dental practice. Ellen was owner and publisher of Welcome Homeowner magazine and a successful business consultant.

Now they reside in the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center, a skilled nursing facility on the campus of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. While each previously lived in various locations at the Jewish Home to meet their evolving care needs, and they roomed with other individuals along the way, both agree this meeting, at this time, was meant to be.

They have only been roommates for a few months; however, as they sit side-by-side, they already complete each other’s sentences like a couple who has been married for years. At the same time, when they describe one another, it’s more like newlyweds, each beaming when listing off the attributes that make their relationship special. Words like "understanding," "patient," "caring," and "loving" are used several times during the conversation—and throughout most of their interview, they are holding hands.

At 65, Helen is the younger of the roommates. Daily, she faces the challenges of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that today has no known cure. However, when she describes her condition, it is with amazing strength, grace, and determination. She remains upbeat, saying, "Well, maybe they’ll find a cure. There were other diseases without a cure, and they found cures for those."

Ellen, 75, echoes that sentiment and describes with great satisfaction her role in helping with Helen’s care. She says that toward the end of some days Helen has trouble speaking without slurring her words a bit, but Ellen is right there making sure others understand and are meeting her needs. Ellen notes that this is a difficult situation for Helen and that, sometimes, she gets sad and emotional about her illness—as any of us would. When that happens, Ellen is there to listen, and to wipe away her tears.

Another commonality Helen and Ellen share is a deep affection for Skirball Director of Spiritual Life Rabbi Karen Bender, who visits them often. They beam as they recall recent visits including one where Ellen says the Rabbi shared that, if she were back in college, she would want to be roommates with the two of them.

When prompted, the women offer sound advice to other roommates, whether at the Jewish Home or in other communities: "Share everything with a mentality of what’s mine is yours, and vice versa," Ellen says. "When it comes to friendship, care about each other’s feelings. Take a few weeks to get to know each other. Give one another space and treat each other with mutual respect."

Without needing to add a word, Helen nods in agreement. They look at each other, and their warm and enthusiastic smiles set an inspiring example for roommates, friends, couples, and co-workers everywhere.

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