When Helen Kass learned her health had declined to the point of needing hospice care, her first thoughts were about her responsibility to others.
“She said, ‘OK, but I don’t want to stop doing my Alzheimer’s caregiver group,’ ” said her daughter Dr. Elizabeth Kass, a physician who lives in Brookline.
Cofacilitating meetings of those who care for loved ones with dementia was a late-in-life coda to Mrs. Kass’s long career. She had worked in admissions at Lesley College and Brandeis University, and had matched Wheelock College students with internships before turning to geriatric counseling. At each stage, colleagues, students, and friends valued her guidance equally.
“Helen was the supreme listener,” her longtime friend Lia Poorvu said at a graveside service a few days ago. “Her thoughtful responses came in a mellifluous, beautifully cadenced timbre. Even her voice on the answering machine was comforting. The vast numbers of people she ‘ministered unto’ received not only the best advice for medical and living options, but the level of her involvement included visits to museums and natural places of beauty. A visit from Helen and a cup of tea nourished the soul.”
No one who knew Mrs. Kass well was surprised when she insisted on accompanying her family in June on a traditional visit to Devil Island off Stonington, Maine. She died there June 20 of complications from leukemia and cancer. Mrs. Kass was 82 and had moved to Brookline several years ago after living in Arlington for decades.
“Helen was a pretty amazing woman,” said Debby Rosenkrantz, who cofacilitated the Alzheimer’s caregivers group in Brookline. “She was incredibly kind and gentle when she needed to be, and very firm and forceful when she needed to be, and knew when to do what.”
That mastery was invaluable to families sorting through the multifaceted needs of a relative with dementia. “Helen was a lifesaver for me,” said Margaret H. Marshall, whose mother, Hilary, died in 2010 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“Helen had this extraordinary capacity to understand what I needed, and to understand what my mother needed, and to put everything together in a way that worked for both of us,” said Marshall, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court. “She identified experts who could really help in situation by situation by situation. Without her expertise, I don’t think I would have survived a very difficult transition.”
Poorvu, a former Wellesley College trustee, began her graveside remarks about Mrs. Kass by saying that “caring and compassion were at the essence of her being” — traits which, in her absence, left everyone feeling a profound sense of loss.
Cynthia Verba, who met Mrs. Kass when they were roommates at Vassar College, wrote a letter to her friend after she died, lamenting that they didn’t get a chance to bid farewell to one another.
“That’s probably just as well, for both of us, but I still want to shout it out now just how much of an inspiration you were to me and probably to others in your fierce determination to focus on life to the best of your ability rather than on death,” wrote Verba, director of fellowships for Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
She added that “you were fully aware of your declining health, you could not help but be so, but you never allowed it to take over. You always remained true to what mattered most, and that was to live as fully as you could.”
Born Helen Elizabeth Kahn, Mrs. Kass was the only child of Joseph Kahn and the former Anne Buslov. As the salutatorian of her graduating class at Poughkeepsie High School in New York, Mrs. Kass spoke before the featured guest, Eleanor Roosevelt, and suggested that a woman would one day hold the nation’s highest office. “Now the time has come when any American girl can dream of being president,” Mrs. Kass said, according to a Poughkeepsie newspaper account.
In her address, Roosevelt responded by saying that “only when we choose people for public office because of their qualifications . . . will this be possible.”
After high school, Mrs. Kass went to Cornell University on scholarship for a year and then transferred to Vassar College. At the end of her first year there, she married Rudy Kass, whom she had met when they worked at a Westport, Conn., resort.
“She was a counselor for children of guests; I was the beach boy,” her husband, a retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, recalled in a written tribute. “Her job required brains; mine did not, and paid better — larger constituency. An early manifestation on unequal pay based on gender.”
While he attended Harvard Law School, she worked in admissions at Lesley, and suddenly had to assume the office’s top responsibilities when the admissions dean fell ill. A few years later, she worked out an arrangement at Brandeis University in which she worked in admissions in exchange for tuition. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis in 1956, and later received a master’s from Northeastern University.
Mrs. Kass returned to admissions work at Lesley and then was in Wheelock’s field placement office before turning to geriatric counseling and management. For a time, she worked through Creative Alliance in Jamaica Plain. She also served for many years on the board of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton.
“She was a great sounding board, and people would regularly call her. I certainly would,” said Amy Schectman, the agency’s president and chief executive. When difficult problems arose, “she was brilliant in coming up with simple, but warm, wonderful resolutions to tough cases.”
Imogene Fish, a longtime friend who worked with Mrs. Kass at Wheelock, said “if she’d been born in another generation, she’d probably have been a psychotherapist or something, and she would have been top notch. If Helen was your friend, you didn’t need a psychotherapist.”
Mrs. Kass “was a great listener — wise, astute,” Fish added. “She was just a great comfort during difficult times. And when nice things happened, or when bad things happened, I would say, ‘I want to talk to Helen.’ ”
A public memorial gathering will be announced for Mrs. Kass, who in addition to her husband and daughter leaves a son, Peter of South Bristol, Maine; another daughter, Susan of Portland, Ore.; and three granddaughters.
Mrs. Kass’s fidelity to helping others was so pronounced that upon beginning a difficult round of chemotherapy “she insisted on still driving four elders to their doctors’ appointments,” her daughter Elizabeth said.
With her husband, Mrs. Kass took the family on canoeing and camping trips to share her love of nature and the outdoors. She also composed poetry and skits with her husband for the birthdays and anniversaries of friends, which the two performed together at gatherings.
“She was a demon with a pun,” her husband wrote, adding: “I miss her, her intelligence, and her voice.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.