If your image of a therapeutic recreation director for residents with dementia is middle-aged, authoritative and in a white lab coat, think again. Danielle Ancona, who started as a high school student and part-time receptionist 14 years ago, is therapeutic recreation director at Wilton Meadows Rehabilitation and Health Care Center. She is young (32), has long, wavy, coppery red hair, and often wears boots and leggings.

The  fascinating part of the story is that when Ms. Ancona was a Norwalk High School student, she worked part-time at Wilton Meadows as a receptionist. “I brought my homework and did it at the front desk,” she recalls. She then became an aide in the recreation department, and after graduation from UConn Stamford,  she went through an intensive geriatric training program and realized her future career would be with the elderly, especially the frailest, “those most in need of a human touch.”

“It could be that I was influenced by seeing my grandmother become helpless, with Alzheimer’s disease,” she says. “I was very close to her, and I think that seeing what Alzheimer’s did to her pushed me towards helping those with dementia. I wish I knew then what I know now.

“With Alzheimer’s, it’s the little things that count. When we changed our methods in the dining room, instead of handing someone a tray, the food was in steam tables and we served people their meals, it made a big difference in the atmosphere. After all, you don’t have food on a tray at home unless you’re sick. We wanted dining here to be more like home.”

One of the programs Ms. Ancona has introduced to Wilton Meadows is Care Camp. It’s a program for high school students to help them understand older people better and give them skills to build intergenerational connections.

“Students from Norwalk High School spent a weekend with our residents. They did all sorts of activities together: art, exercise, music, crafts, and games. Students and residents enjoyed the experience so much we plan to schedule Care Camp three times a year. In addition to teaching young people about the elderly, it’s a chance for them to see if they’d like to make health care a career. There are many job opportunities here: dietitian, nurse, therapist, administration.

“Seeing the success of programs like Care Camp, I go home feeling very good. Happiness here can come from a very small, personal thing. There was a resident who was unhappy because her shoelaces were torn. My dad has a shoe store and getting the right shoelaces was no problem at all, but it was a big event for the resident.”

Ms. Ancona has brought her knowledge and insights to the greater community, giving talks in the area and suggestions to caregivers. “You do this job with your heart on your sleeve, if you do it right.”

Ms. Ancona’s 14 years at Wilton Meadows has given her expertise, confidence and understanding. She never thought this would be her career path but says, “I believe there’s a right person for every job. I’m lucky to have found it.”