A Young Volunteer Gets a Peek At Life At The Senior Center

Zenobia Silas-Carson

An eager volunteer called our office the other day and asked what they could do to help the “elderly” in our building. I felt a familiar irritation that rattled me big time. I could hear something in the voice of the person that suggested a stereotypical one-size-fits-all idea of senior citizens in their natural habitat that was kind of like someone going on a senior safari.

My mind’s eye showed me a person dressed in a nursing home camouflage.  They would be carrying an arsenal of prune juice, crossword books, and sturdy nets to take a specimen or two back to civilization to study them.

The buzz of their adolescent sounding voice lured me back into the moment with a question that nearly pushed me to the edge. “How often do they come out of their rooms?”  followed by “Do they have a curfew?”. Okay, I had to put an end to this madness in the nicest way possible.

Through barely open lips, I corrected this assumption with what I hoped was a cheerful voice. “Oh, you must think this is a nursing home or assisted living, I chimed, feeling my fingers tightening around the phone’s receiver.

We, I assured this person, are an independent living situation and we do not live in rooms, but have separate apartments with our dishwashers, ranges, and all the amenities of life!”  “Steady, girl, I told myself. This could get interesting.

I wish the volunteer could see some of the residents here. Regular tenants with a diverse repertoire of abilities. Some folks in motorized chairs, others use walkers, many more than that still work outside our building, while our caretaker is a man of many hats and he is a one year younger than my seventy-two years. He is the reason our 90 unit, three-story apartment building sparkling built in 1968 and has an old-world charm of its own.

I sit in an office, where I interview prospective tenants and counsel others who request it. We have a bunch of activities suited to the individual needs of each resident. I did not want to sound defensive or offended. Folks resist that kind of thing, so I slowed my breathing and tried to remain calm. People only know what society tells them, I guess.

There was an awkward pause and the geeky, well-meaning voice came again. “Well, it’s a common mistake, but they are kind of the same aren’t they?”  I sighed a long sigh. The sigh of the “wronged”.  The happy voice told me how many “senior places” they had volunteered for. “I bring puppets and baby dolls because some people respond to dolls and toys and it helps with their memory!”.

I almost laughed out loud as I pictured one of our feisty female residents, an opera-voiced ex-hippie who at 74 still looks great in her non-mom jeans and takes public transportation to the concerts, museums and anyplace she decides to go, flinging that baby doll as far into next week as possible.

Steadying my voice I laid out the order of senior places. Care homes, memory care places, senior places like ours, assisted living, nursing homes and more.  I finished with “The only similarities are that they are specially designed with the varying needs of seniors at different stages of life”. I decided not to go into sub-categories because that would take another hour or so.

There was another pause, then an elongated, “Ohhhhhhhhhhh” worthy of Edith Bunker when the light bulb over her head switched to “on”.  I asked if they would like to know the varying degrees of capabilities in our place and I replaced the “they” with “we” every chance I got. During their new-found knowledge, the person asked how I liked working there. ”

“I work and live here,” I said saucily. “You’re a senior?” they asked in a voice that dared me to say yes. “I certainly am,” I said with more sass than sauce and revealed my current age.  The last pause was short, followed by, “You don’t sound old” and I wonder what  Wicked Witch of the West had been expected. This kid must never have seen The Golden Girls.

I sighed and agreed to meet with this person. Nothing like hands-on experience to get rid of the cobwebs of assumption. I will be meeting with this young….uh….person on Friday, and I will be kind (I promise) because to break the bug-a-boos about our peers, we have to meet the wrongful knowledge doled out by society, with patience, kindness and above all wisdom, and I am just the queen-ager to do it!


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