Saturday, June 13, 2009

Making friends with old people

I'd never done community service at a senior center before last summer. And I get along with my own grandparents, but never got to know them, not all that well. I never found out the little details about their lives or heard stories told over and over again that I could repeat to someone else. Sure, they had all sorts of wisdom and know-how, but somehow I never summed it up into something that could follow "My grandpa always says . . . "

So those are all likely reasons to hang out with elderly people.

But the reason I volunteered last summer, the reason I started, anyway, was that I wanted something to write about. I thought, A senior center is a veritable goldmine for stories. Wouldn't it be great to uncover people's lives and write them down? I wonder what these people have been through, I wonder what they've learned.

Since I never got them (never remembered them) from my own grandparents, I wanted the stories. I wanted the "Do this, because from my experience . . . " and the "Wow, a long time ago, we used to . . . " and I wanted to finally want to listen and I wanted the stories to be in a language I understood and could respond to.

And since I had no job and all my closest friends did have jobs - in D.C., at summer camps, at the pool, in Pittsburgh - I felt inadequate. I felt like I hadn't tried hard enough to find work, and then I thought that maybe I had, and I just didn't have any of the qualities necessary to get a summer job. I felt like I was going to waste two and a half months being "unproductive" and this was going to be an insurmountable setback with long-term consequences, none identifiable because I didn't actually have long-term goals, but nevertheless threatening and panic-inducing.* My self-esteem occupied the area of a postage stamp, and I desperately wanted to be sent somewhere, out of my house, just get out somewhere and be useful. I wanted to help someone.

You know, whenever I'm desperate to help, it's usually because I could use some help myself.

What ended up happening? As I'm writing this, I realize I put too much faith in the infallible memories of old people. They may have experienced a lot, but after all that living, they deserve a break. It's okay if they don't want to or just can't retell the stories. I ended up volunteering in Senior Plus - that's the side of the senior center where they host activities for mentally degenerative seniors.

I got to work with the coolest people, energetic men and women who love what they do. Harriet, Janet, Joyce, Jackie, Jay, Tommy, Danijela (pronounced "Daniella"). The occupational therapists and volunteers were so bright and so purposeful about caring for others, even when I felt crummy and disappointed about being stuck at home, what could I do but imitate them when I was around them? We served meals and made crafts and sang songs and played bingo and did "exercise time" with the seniors.

The seniors themselves were fantastic. There was fiery little Rosaria, who showed up each morning in J Crew-style print dresses, rattling her walker, demanding "agua, no ice," and babbling in Italian. Which I was still trying to teach myself how to speak at this point, so I brought my Italian book with me some days and Tommy and I would try to find some phrases that would be useful to say to her. The most that I understood of her life story was "ragazzo" - boy - I think at one point she may have been telling me something about her sons.

Joanna was boisterous and cheerful, very elegant-looking with big, alert brown eyes, and apparently she was Greek, because whenever she, Rosaria, and Gwen sat at a table together, it'd be called the "International Table." I remember she had a trademark cheer, which would get imitated a lot, and a very calm smile when she was happy.

Gwen was more graceful and aloof, very friendly and liked to talk to you. She was one of the first people I met. She was from England and liked to drink tea in the morning. I remember she was very proper about her art projects and word searches and always asked if she was doing it the right way, but not in a high-strung way or a seeking-affirmation way, more like she just wanted you to keep her company and encourage her from time to time.

I remember Ann, Thelma, and Dorothy, who were very gentle and quiet and had beautiful smiles. Thelma was from Virginia and told me she used to go to school in a one-room schoolhouse (dirt floor, or did I make that up?), several grades in the same place. She was kind towards kindness, I sensed resignation from her sometimes, like she was humoring my volunteer-self when I offered to help her with her word search. "I can't see it," because her vision was impaired.

Let's see. There were three Marys. I remember one never ate lunch, but was consistently kind and pleasant. Another Mary was sort of trapped inside her body, but still there, and we talked to her and did art projects with her. She passed away in July. The third Mary was sometimes grumpy - she'd pout and insist that the other seniors made fun of her, or say that an old ex-boyfriend, Danny, told her she was ugly - and sometimes cheerful - talking about her Croc shoes and her outfit and the dolls she carried with her, Bubba and Pearl.

And Rhoda and Nikki, who were playful and sassy and would make jokes with Jay. Rhoda was vaguely regal, a bit of a diva, but also a sweetheart, and Nikki seemed like she might have been an athlete when she was younger, energetic and kind of agressive, always faking punches.

And Mitch who would say "Yay!" when he got excited and loved to dance, who'd always wear a cap of some sort, who they were always asking to sit down and for whom you'd have to rush to get his cane, because he wanted to move around so much. Haha Joanna was so annoyed by him and would tell him to be quiet. Vince, who celebrated his 98th or 99th birthday (the secret was apparently all the vino). Mike, whose smile and glittering eyes looked pretty mischievious, when he wasn't putting his logic skills to work on that day's Sodoku puzzle. Frank, a friendly guy whose grandson was in the Olympic trials. And Mr. Raja, very demure, who always wore a collared, button-down shirt and carried a tote bag with him.

I catch myself wanting to edit parts of my past and being anxious about the future, and what I forget in those moments is how to live in the present and love whatever I'm doing. To just focus on where I am and the people I'm with and whatever God has given me. These seniors lived incredibles lives, full of worth and merit. But I learned from them the importance of cherishing the present. That's all you have after memories become a collective vagueness and long-term goals have been set and revised and achieved. Each day becomes something to look forward to. Why can't it be that way now?

We're all going to grow old. We're all going to have weakened bones and flabby muscles, de-elasticized skin and age spots. It's neither disheartening nor repulsive. And it doesn't need to take that long to be encouraged by what's around you, to start living in the present.

*(Wasting time is a choice and a matter of perspective.) It wasn't a waste.

A final point that fit nowhere above: I was proposed to twice last summer by the same man. That should be a huge plug for volunteer work at a senior center. If I said "Okay," does that mean I'm engaged?

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