For Seniors : After 60 Years, Beloved Nanny Is One of the Family

Deena Brand and her daughter, Ronna, still refer to her as Mrs. Wilkins.

Sixty years ago Marie Wilkins, now 100, was hired by Brand's parents as a housekeeper and nanny. Two years later, Brand's mother died.

"My earliest memory of her is of someone who was very kind, very sweet and hard-working," Brand said. "She had full supervision of me and my brother and sister. Those were the days when you didn't have to be strict with children because they honored authority."

Wilkins had been taking care of other people's children since she was 16 years old. Even when she married late in life, it was to a widower with four children. When her husband drowned after they were together for seven years, she raised his children while she worked for the Brand family.

In his latter years, Brand's father raised horses, so after the children were grown, Wilkins moved to the farm in Desert Hot Springs with him. The horses became the passion of her life. Although she never rode, she learned how to care for the animals and taught Brand's three children how to ride.

"She talked to the horses and they actually talked back to her," Ronna said.

Her earliest memory of Wilkins was seeing her stand in the doorway of the house with her arms open wide. "I always thought of her as my grandmother," she said.

So when it came time for Wilkins to retire, there was no question they would take care of her. "She's Mrs. Wilkins. She's family," Ronna said.

A nursing home was out of the question. That left the family business--real estate. Brand buys, renovates and sells buildings and houses. She also owns a four-unit apartment house in Rosemead. That's where Wilkins lives. Brand also hired a nurse and driver for her. They live in two of the other units.

"She has never left our family. I believe in doing everything for someone while they are alive and to treasure the good memories when they're gone," Brand said.

Wilkins is one of the lucky women her age. Although she receives a small stipend from the government, she is part of the ever-growing population who would otherwise be living in poverty.

According to the Administration on Aging, one-third of all women over 65 had incomes within 150% of the poverty level which, in 1990, was defined as $6,268. Poverty is projected to be an even greater problem for older women when the baby boom generation reaches retirement. A 1991 report of the Advisory Council on Social Security projects that single, elderly women in the baby boom generation will have lower levels of income and wealth than single elderly men or elderly couples.

Nowadays, Wilkins uses a wheelchair and has difficulty hearing, but she writes at least three letters a week to friends and family and watches her favorite television programs--reruns of "I Love Lucy" and "The Waltons." The new shows, she says, are too fast for her.

Brand called her, and I asked through her nurse how she wants to be remembered.

"I want to be remembered as a good helper, a good worker and honest," she said.

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