A Zest for Life: Meet Tanja Nicklisch, Life Enrichment Coordinator

Tanja Nicklisch has always had a love for people. “I’m pretty good at connecting with just about anybody, and all the jobs I’ve had require that,” she says. An entrepreneurial artist at heart, Tanja owned her own tattoo shop in San Francisco for more than 20 years before becoming a wedding photographer. However, when the pandemic abruptly halted weddings in 2020, she knew she needed to find something else. Bartending, which she was also familiar with, was out of the question since bars and restaurants were closing their doors across the city.

“I worked at Trader Joe’s briefly, but it was too strenuous,” Tanja shares. After experiencing several serious health issues, she set about looking for a position that would allow her to remain active and interact with others without sacrificing her physical health. Then a job ad posted online changed everything.

The ad was for a Life Enrichment Coordinator position at SFCJL’s Jewish Home & Rehab Center, on our G2 floor–working with patients and residents navigating advanced dementia. Although Tanja had not previously worked with older adults in a professional setting, she had helped care for her partner’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s, for three years. That experience had been a positive one, and motivated Tanja to apply.

Now, one year later, she feels energized and fulfilled once again by her work. A typical day might begin with personal visits (sometimes featuring her dog) to those who are unable to leave their rooms, followed by group activities. Tanja is known around campus for her ukulele, which makes an appearance daily. She puts on musical concerts and singalongs for her floor, as well as other stimulating activities such as cooking and baking that encourage sensory stimulation like kneading dough. “I try to involve every single person in some way. It’s good for me because I never get bored!” she emphasizes.

Tanja’s favorite part of her role is seeing a smile or laughter from someone who doesn’t normally express such emotions. “This work can be challenging, but there is always something pleasantly surprising at the end of each day. There are hard days, but as long as I can make their lives just a little bit better, that’s what counts. People who hear about my job think there must be a lot of sadness, but there is a lot of fun too. With dementia patients, it can be easy to focus on who they once were and mourn that part of them. But I try to focus on who they are right now. I try my best to stay in the moment,” she shares.

Tanja appreciates what the residents and patients continue to teach her: “Life is short and you have to do what you want while you still can. Also, they’ve taught me that people will always find ways to engage and connect even through language barriers and other obstacles. Lastly, they’ve shown me time and time again that it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you can do.”