There’s a large map of the world above Serena Rhinelander Stewart’s desk. It’s so covered in color-coded stickers that the countries beneath are almost entirely obscured. Red dots cover places she’s visited, blue dots track the route she sailed around the world, and green dots represent places she’s lived. After an impressive career as an architect, Serena’s life was a cycle of “preparing for a trip, going on that trip, coming back and talking about the trip!” according to her niece Jane.
“We come from a family of characters, and she’s one of them!” Jane continued. In fact, the Rhinelander Stewarts are somewhat of a New York institution. Serena’s grandfather, William Rhinelander Stewart Sr., famously commissioned the design of the Washington Square Park arch by architect Stanford White; her father William Rhinelander Stewart was known as the most eligible bachelor in NYC, and her mother Janet was once dubbed “the most beautiful woman in New York.”
But Serena, the prominent real estate heiress and young socialite, left her native New York after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and worked as an architect in Sun Valley Idaho for almost 30 years.
Then at age 50, Serena bought a sailboat and circumnavigated the globe by herself (hence the blue dots on the map). However, it’s not just the places Serena’s visited that make for good stories, it’s also her personal spaces. For many years, Serena lived in a sprawling apartment overlooking the Park Avenue Armory that was previously owned by erotic novelist Kathleen Winsor, author of “Forever Amber,” which became a bestseller despite being banned in 14 states. Even her apartments have character!
Serena now lives in a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side that is decorated with artifacts from her many travels
When “stay-at-home” orders began in early 2020, Serena’s niece Jane began checking in on her every day. Then, in typical fashion, Serena packed a bag, joining Jane and her family in the Hudson Valley. There she stayed for nearly two months before the urge to return to the city couldn’t be denied. It was during this transition back to the hustle of city-life that Serena and Jane began to re-strategize her day-to-day care.
Serena’s care needs came on rather suddenly: as a result of her Lewy Body Dementia diagnosis (which Serena and Jane lovingly refer to as “Lovely Body” dementia), Serena became aphasic, which causes her to struggle with word retrieval, despite her great interest in and commitment to verbal sparring and dry humor.
With the help of a neighbor and the referral of a friend, Jane and Serena reached out to Duet. They interviewed a handful of candidates over Zoom and did a series of in-person trials before building Serena’s current care team. Jane knew that this chosen family must include people who could stay on their toes, with thick enough skin not to take things too personally, and a playful heart to build continually creative and active days with Serena.
Serena now has 24/7 care provided by three companions, who all share a detailed log of what adventures they’ve been on to help the next caregiver transition and strategize their daily plan.
Jane laughs, almost incredulously, trying to recount a recent report. They often go something like this:
We went to Party City and bought party hats and streamers! Then we came home and baked banana bread. After the party, we took the train all the way to the Cloisters and explored before coming home.”
“That’s just one day!” Jane exclaims somewhere between elation and exhaustion. “[Serena] really is living her best life.” Her companions have a real understanding of what she likes, what she wants, and where she needs to be.
One of Serena’s companions, an accomplished painter from Australia named Aston, reflected on what it’s been like to live and learn with Serena: “I feel fortunate in a lot of ways,” Aston offered, “she has so much energy to burn,” so they try to keep things interesting. This could include anything from attending a concert in the park to building a papier mache miniature golf course in the apartment!
On how he builds their weekends together, Serena’s weekend companion Nixon says, “Be proactive. Be creative.” Nixon moved to New York from Haiti two years ago, where he earned both his medical and law degrees. He shares Serena’s wanderlust and thirst for adventure, having done his fair share of traveling himself, from West Africa to South America. As a result, they’re learning to cook dishes from around the world (currently focusing on Caribbean cuisine). And they dance! From Salsa and Tango to Bachata, Serena and Nixon are often found cutting a rug, even if it’s just the living room rug!
From tango with Nixon to Tai Chi with Aston, movement is a constant in all of Serena’s relationships. She grew up as a competitive figure skater, afterall, and she’s retained that flexibility and athleticism to this day.
With how full their days can be, Jane likens life with Serena as an exercise in the improv philosophy of “yes, and.” It’s a simple principle by which performers stay present with one another, accept the given circumstances, and move forward from whatever idea enters the scene. Due to her aphasia, Serena might forget exactly what she wants to say, but she has the intention and emotion right. “You have to read the feeling,” Aston shared.