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On Living in a Retirement Home

By Klari Farzley

December 2, 2018

If you have read my previous blog posts, you will know that my work placement is at 12 Baskets Cafe. But in this post I would like to talk a little bit about where I live, and the opportunity for growth it has offered me. 

I live in a retirement community. Yes, a home for old folks. The other volunteers and I live in two apartments alongside the independent residents. For the program, this is actually a really great set up. Living in Asheville is expensive, and gets even more so each year. In exchange for fairly cheap rent in a good part of town, we volunteer there on the weekends. Now, this home was built to support Methodist Deaconesses, pastors and missionaries who have traveled all over the world. These people have spent their lives working alongside Christian communities in places like Senegal, South Korea, India, and countless other countries. The walls are lined with artifacts brought back with them on their journeys, a reminder of the full and rich lives they have led. 

However, as these people have aged their bodies have deteriorated. Many of them are not always mentally present or aware, and a huge challenge for me has been navigating my interactions with the nursing patients—the ones who require around the clock care. I’m supposed to walk around with coloring pages, puzzles, books, etc. and visit with these patients. But to be completely honest, I have spent the first few months here afraid to do this, terrified even. It didn’t help that one woman bit me when I tried to do crafts with her, and another yelled at me for taking her to the wrong floor on the elevator. I watched my other roommates as they excelled in communicating with non-verbal residents. But I was struggling. What was I doing wrong? 

From the beginning, it has been easy for me to build friendships and engage in conversation with the people at 12 Baskets—some of which are experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. Some of which have reputations for violence or have served time for murder. That was easy, because the whole mission of 12 Baskets is meeting people where they are at, erasing the labels of those “have” and “have not.” Eradicating poverty and fear though relationships with our neighbors. But every time, I entered Brooks Howell it felt different. It was harder. 

One day when volunteering at Brooks Howell, I went down to a common area to interact with residents. Coloring pages in hand, I approached a woman, let’s call her Betty. From past experiences with her, I’d come to understand two things: First, she loves to look at magazines, but her hands are too weak to turn the pages so CNAs and volunteers do it for her. Second, she does not verbally communicate. With anyone. Unless, as one of the CNAs told me, it was to yell at them. I did not want to get yelled at (or bitten, as the CNAs also said she was fond of) so I had never approached her—afraid of being yelled at or bitten again. But today, she was the only one sitting in the room. 

I approached her and asked if I could sit there, maybe help her turn the pages. She said nothing so I sat. I noticed she was very intently looking at pictures of dogs in a magazine. After about 10 minutes of looking at the dogs, I asked her if she wanted me to turn the page. No response. So, taking that as a yes I reached for the page and turned it. She looked at me as if I had slapped her, or called her a horrible name. 

“Okay, okay,” I said putting my hands up in surrender, “let me turn it back.” 

Around this time, the CNA brought up another resident, let’s call him Tom. Although I do not know Tom’s medical condition (or any of the residents for that matter, because it is confidential) I assumed that Tom had suffered from a stroke or something in the past. He was shaking looking straight ahead at the T.V. So I tried my luck interacting with him, saying who I was, asking him about his day. He did not show any indication that he heard me, nor understood that I was talking to him. Great, I thought. I’m making a fool of myself trying to talk to these people who really don’t want me here. Either that, or they have no clue what’s going on. 

But then I remembered 12 Baskets Cafe, and what makes it so easy to be with people there. We start each day at the Cafe with a reminder that all of us matter. Each of us come to the table with as many needs as we do capacities to serve one another. Most importantly, we talk about what it means to meet people where they are at in their lives. I was looking at Brooks Howell all wrong. I wasn’t putting in the effort to meet these people where they were at in their lives. 

“Betty, I want to show you something,” I said. She lazily peered up at me over the rim of her glasses. This woman clearly liked dogs. So I pulled up a particularly cute video of my dog Ruby, who I miss very much, crouched down on the floor waiting for someone to come play with her. “This is my dog,” I told her.

Almost instantly, her expression softened. She smiled and pulled the phone closer to her. She looked right at me, pointed to the video of Ruby on my phone and said very clearly, “That’s a good girl.” I was shocked. This woman could speak. Not only that, but was not certain she could understand me this entire time. She motioned me to flip the pages of the dog magazine back to a picture of a basset hound. She smiled. “I used to have two,” she said. So I showed her other pictures on my my phone, telling her stories about the first time I went square dancing and explaining what I did at 12 Baskets. I showed her pictures of my family, and spoke honestly with her about how hard it was to leave them. She was listening, and she was responding. 

And then I felt guilt. I had underestimated the abilities of these people because of their age—people who were once traveling the world, learning other languages and serving communities. Now old and weak, but still the same. I was guilty of looking at them with fear and otherness, all the while working to dismantle that very perspective our society has of those experiencing poverty. I had failed to extend that notion of meeting people where they are at to my work at the retirement home. Like my friends experiencing poverty at 12 Baskets, these folks were coming from somewhere too. Somewhere different from myself. Unlike them, I had never experienced the frustration that accompanies isolation and loneliness—of being pushed to the margins of a society that does not recognize their worth. These nursing residents didn’t engage because they refused, not because they were unable. No wonder they didn’t want to interact with someone bearing coloring pages and spoke to them like children. I would probably yell or bite someone too.

 Later I learned that Tom was also capable of speaking, but had stopped after his wife died a few months prior. I learned that Betty was a missionary, teacher, and nurse who used to travel to other countries and tend to the sick. Now she is not even allowed to stand up on her own. In a conversation with another resident about how injured racehorses used to get sent to the glue factory (I’m honestly not sure how this topic came about) he looked at me and said, “it’s like all of us here. We’ve run our race, but we are of no use to anyone anymore.” There is pain in this place—frustration that comes from the loneliness of being trapped in a body that does not allow things it once did.

I am beginning to understand what it looks like to live in this world remembering to meet people where they’re at. All people. Listening, and seeking to understand where they come from and who they are. Martin Luther King said, “there is a risk involved in loving.” In order to truly serve others, and be served in return, we are all required to risk our understanding of the world, to risk our perceived safety. It is never easy to enter the water, abandoning the solid foundation of our own understanding. But it is necessary. It is worth the risk. As Townes Van sings in his song “If I Needed You”: 

I would come to you,

I would swim the seas

for to ease your pain. 

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