Celebrating over 200 years of marriage, the nursing and rehabilitating facility Palm Garden of Aventura on June 22 hosted a “Special Date Night” for six residential couples. The event was awash with sentimentality, emanating from the staff members and commemorated couples — and one special guest, “Raging Bull” Jake Lamotta, now 95 and himself a resident.
LaMotta and his longtime partner, Denise Baker, sat centered in front of a pianist and amid the romantically adorned tables. LaMotta, former holder of the World Middleweight Championship boxing title, has long lived in South Florida and about three months ago moved into Palm Garden.
The former boxing champ — whose first autobiography inspired Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance in director Martin Scorsese’s 1980 biopic “Raging Bull,” smiled quietly in a wheelchair, barely saying a word.
LaMotta has received the celebrity treatment at Palm Garden, according to Baker.
“They just care,” she said. “They take the extra effort to make Jake comfortable. Put him in fresh clothes every day.”
At Date Night, respiratory therapist Silvia Szeliga read a poem in both English and Spanish. Palm Garden resident Rafaela Baez had requested the poem and dedicated it to her husband of 62 years, Alberto, who knows four languages. Exclaiming in joy during Szeliga’s reading and powerful performance, Alberto Baez’s satisfaction was mirrored throughout the room.
After Szeliga performed a serenade, event coordinator Zita Wilensky went around the room to read cards placed at each table. The cards gave short histories of each couple, including when and where they met, pet names, and quirks unique to their marriages.
Mary Lewis, who has been with her husband, John, for 26 years and married for 11, found the programs “excellent.”
“Their activities are wonderful,” she said. “It’s beyond anything we’ve seen anywhere else.” John Lewis lives at Palm Garden.
Vito Vincent Tripi, who in March renewed his marriage vows with wife Selma at Palm Garden, said the staff there “[goes] out of their way ... to exercise love between two people.”
With 68 years of marriage — 69 in December — Tripi attributed their long relationship to mutual respect. “If you don’t have respect, you have nothing,” he said.
His advice for young couples: “Be honest.”
Palm Garden Executive Director Shonda Taylor said Date Night helps older couples at the center relive fun times of their past.
“We know that they miss being able to go out, to have a romantic dinner and we kind of wanted to take it back as close to the beginning as we could,” Taylor said. “I want them to take away that we respect and we honor their love.”