Prime Time profile: Health issues prompt couple to move, despite two remodels of their home

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 17, 2014 

3 14 Prime Ouweneel

Bill, 83, and Catherine, 79, Ouweneel with their cats Kenny, left and Barbie, in their home at the Willows Retirement Apartments in Bellingham, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013. The Ouweneels, who moved from the South Hill area of Bellingham, say they have been very happy in their new home at the Willows.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Names: Bill and Catherine Ouweneel.

Ages: Bill, 84; Catherine, 79.

Hometown: Bellingham. They have been married 21 years.

“We realized we had to accept changes:” That’s how Catherine Ouweneel describes why she and her husband moved to independent living at The Willows, even though it meant leaving their well-loved, twice-remodeled Bellingham home.

“We just wanted to get ahead of the game,” says Bill, who has coped with peripheral neuropathy, a progressive nerve disease, since his early 70s but still gets around without a wheelchair. “I had experienced vertigo and broke four bones in five falls.”

“Be prepared. That’s my advice to anyone,” says Catherine, a retired teacher who, in October 2013, had her left knee replaced at the Joint Replacement Center at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.

Dream home: The affable couple played tourists for the first time in the Northwest in 1988, but wound up buying a house in Bellingham before they returned home to a suburb of New York City.

They quickly fell in love with both the community and the classic home on a slope on Morey Lane near Western Washington University. They rented out the home for a year before moving to Bellingham for good.

Remodel No. 1: In 1995 they turned one of the two living-room areas into a larger kitchen and turned the old kitchen into a dining area. That was an ideal way for Catherine to express her creativity as a cook. She had studied culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in France and taught cooking classes at Whatcom Community College.

“It was a very successful remodel,” says Catherine, recalling the job that local designer Jan Hayes did along with Rick Dubrow of

A-1 Builders and his crew. “Rick is an outstanding problem solver.”

Remodel No. 2: A second remodel, in 2001 with the same folks, made the bedroom wing and two upper bathrooms more functional.

Because of their home’s location on a slope, they entered the top half (the principal part of the home) from the street and used stairs to access the bottom half.

“The bottom half essentially became lost to me because of my knee problems,” Catherine says. “With the two remodels, we felt we had gotten maximum use out of the house.”

Finding The Willows: They visited six independent living facilities in Whatcom County because they were determined to stay in the area they had grown to love so much.

“We felt so comfortable, seeing a happy environment with a lot of smiles at The Willows,” Catherine.

An apartment matching their size request became available a few weeks after their tour. They were ready to make an immediate move in July 2012, more than a year before Catherine’s knee surgery.

Teacher in the corporate world: Bill, who once thought he would become a psychologist, was intrigued by the possibilities at IBM in the mid-’50s. When IBM hired him, he trained as a systems engineer.

“I worked for IBM in various locations with various educational responsibilities for more than 30 years,” says Bill, who graduated with a degree in psychology from DePauw University in Indiana. “Everything I did involved some form of education. I loved working for IBM. I felt it was the greatest corporation in the world.”

Bill, who also served a two-year Army stint, took a company-approved, two-year leave to hone his skills in a different form of education, as director of Peace Corps volunteers in Brazil.

Serious cook: Catherine, who was thrilled to once meet Julia Child at a festival in Apsen, Colo., loves fine food and wine, as does Bill. She taught French for travelers and taught cooking in night courses at WCC.

Bill has a popular wine course as one of the many activities offered at The Willows.

Happy at The Willows: Catherine doesn’t regret their decision about their new home.

“Living at The Willows is like being on a perpetual cruise,” she says. “So many good friends, so much good food, so many activities. We just love it all.”

Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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