Pageant puts focus on staying active, positive.

by Sarah Carlson
Staff Writer for

Martha Shirey, a resident of Cypress Cove Care & Rehabilitation Center in Muscle Shoals, stays active. She plays piano and recently won the facility’s beauty pageant and was a Top 10 finalist in the Ms. Alabama Nursing Home pageant.

The staff at Cypress Cove Care & Rehabilitation Center took care of Martha Shirey’s appearance for the Ms. Alabama Nursing Home pageant, including her pedicure and manicure, her black, silver and white evening gown and her sparkling jewelry and tiara.

But Shirey, 77, earned the honor of representing her facility at the annual event by being herself.

    “She just has an overall positive outlook on life,” Leigh Byers, Cypress Cove activity director, said. “She’s always active — she plays the piano for our church services every week. She stays involved. She’s kind to the other residents (and) helps staff members.”

This isn’t your typical pageant.

There’s a novelty to it, of course, said John Matson, director of communications at the Alabama Nursing Home Association. But in addition to outlook on life, poise and communication skills, the 73 contestants from facilities that are members of the association were judged overall on how involved they are in the life of their nursing home and how they contribute to the well-being of its residents.

    “We’re looking for someone who … cares about others and wants to make their lives better and the lives of people around them better,” Matson said.

After winning Cypress Cove’s pageant, Shirey submitted an entry form and video to the association and was chosen among 10 other finalists by a preliminary panel of judges. Linda Patterson, of Mitchell-Hollingsworth Nursing & Rehab in Florence, also made the Top 10.

At the main pageant in August, conducted at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Shirey interviewed with judges including Frankie Cashion, Ms. Senior Alabama; Danielle DuBose, Distinguished Young Woman of Alabama; Valerie Stewart, Miss University of Alabama; Dr. Bob Mullins, commissioner of Alabama Medicaid Agency; and Quintin Hawkins, a Montgomery-based consultant and civic leader. She wasn’t intimidated.

    “I wasn’t nervous,” Shirey said. “You couldn’t say the wrong thing, they said. So I did most of the talking.”

She is happy to share her story. One of nine children raised in the Double Springs area, she met her husband, David Lorenz Shirey, as a teenager at a swimming pool in Haleyville. They attended the University of Alabama together, engaged for her first three years and married by the fourth.

They lived in converted World War II barracks designated for couples, a scraping-by existence that involved washing clothes in the bathroom.

After graduating with a degree in commerce and business administration with a minor in economics in 1956, Shirey and her husband moved to Montgomery and later Haleyville. She worked as a social worker for years and long after retiring, she moved to the Shoals, where one of her two sons and most of her five grandchildren still live.

Felma Schrimshire, 100, of Andalusia Manor in Andalusia, won the crown at the pageant, but Shirey said she may be back.

    “They said, ‘We want to see more of you,’ ” Shirey said, smiling as she sat in Cypress Cove’s living area and wishing the pageant organizers would add a talent portion to the contest.

She could wow the crowd by playing the piano, which she has been doing since age 4, and singing. Those are her favorite activities, but she participates in much more.

Martha Shirey (Photo courtesy of Daniel Giles/Times Daily)

Each day at the center begins with the reading of the newspaper for current events. Pictionary is a favorite among residents, Byers said, and Shirey likes to play Rook, dominoes and checkers. Residents earn “funny money” for each activity they attend, and at the end of the month comes the Funny Money Auction at which items such as food, clothing, toiletries, jewelry and more are sold to the highest bidder. Shirey is practical in her purchases each time the event rolls around; recently, toothpaste was a big win for her.

A key component to the Ms. Alabama Nursing Home pageant is that it lets outsiders know that a nursing home or similar facility can be full of life, and so can its residents. Everything from taking exercise classes to playing games with neighbors to having one’s hair styled at the facility’s salon can make a difference in a resident’s life, Byers said.

    “Most people just think about nursing homes having bingo all the time, but we actually do a lot more than that,” Byers said. “Elvis just left — no joke,” she added, laughing.

    “Every activity lifts their spirits a little bit. You can see when they walk out of there they’ve got a smile on their face.”

Aside from volunteers and visitors stopping by to brighten their days — “The smallest act of kindness can mean the day for them,” Byers said — listening to the residents is what matters most.

She said the staff takes their recommendations and tries to find ways to make their stay at the facility as comfortable as possible.

    “This is their home, so you want to make it enjoyable,” she said. “When you’re at home, you’re able to do anything you want to do, and we try to make it as much like that as we possibly can. They just need a little more assistance.”

    “They really can have time to enjoy their life while they’re here.”

The pageant, a large production of lights, music and about 500 attendees, is about enjoyment, too, Matson said. Each contestant is recognized and doted on with goody bags. “It’s also a special day for the ladies,” he said. “We all enjoy getting dressed up, going to a special event where people make us feel important to them (and be) recognized for the things we’ve done for others throughout our lives.

    “It’s just letting these ladies know that we care for them, that they’re special to us and they’re special to other people.”

Sarah Carlson can be emailed at

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