Why the Elderly

The young characters in most of my novels interact with the elderly. Why? I write about what has been significant in my life and my 15 years of volunteer experience serving the elderly has been life changing for me.

While living in a small town in Arizona, I became an advocate for residents who live in nursing homes and assisted living communities. That means I helped them get what they want. I remember the first time my supervisor took me in to a nursing home, an unfamiliar environment for someone who had worked with engineers. The residents appeared fragile and disabled. Some were disfigured by disease and others behaved badly. Some needed help with feeding. Many sat in wheel chairs. Only a few could be easily understood. I was not sure I could relate to these people, let alone serve as their advocate.

My first case was with a resident of an assisted living community who said his son would not give him spending money. I called the son and learned that the resident drank liquor and the son did not approve. That sounded reasonable, but my supervisor said the resident had the right to buy liquor and the son had to give him his spending money. I learned about Resident Rights, federal and state laws that protect basic rights of individuals who live in facilities. Once he got his spending money, the resident thanked me so much that I realized my small deed had changed his life for the better.

In Arizona I visited several assisted living facilities a couple of times each month and got to know the residents. One told me how she had founded the training program for the Peace Corps. Another man told of working on the Panama Canal. A woman remembered seeing the Buffalo soldiers, a famous platoon of black soldiers, at the local fort. These residents had lots of time to talk to me and lots of stories.

We moved to Florida and I traveled over a four county area to inspect facilities or to investigate and resolve complaints. My peers were attorneys, physicians, nurses, pharmacists and gerontologists. They taught me how to encourage residents to open up about problems and  how to fight for whatever it was the resident wanted or needed.

Some of the cases were easy to resolve: reimburse for lost clothing, refund unspent money after a resident dies, or make sure that the leaking toilets in the facility are fixed before someone slipped. As time progressed, I took on more challenging cases. I arranged for new dentures, rescued a resident whose bed sore had gone untreated and located lost relatives.

I met a 95-year-old resident who could no longer pay for her assisted living and had no one to help her. I found her sitting in her room surrounded by boxes filled with her possessions and wondering when the police were going to dump her onto the street. I supported her application for federal aid and her move to another facility, and encouraged a local relative to reconnect with her. That resident thanked me every time she saw me.

.I do not volunteer anymore and I miss hearing about long, fascinating lives and miss being appreciated for just being there. Spending time with the elderly has been a priceless experience for me.


Unwelcome Name

I was twelve and stood at second base.

The pitcher said to me, “Hey, hey, second baseman. Looking good.”

I knew I looked good and I also played softball like a pro. I gave him a weak smile.

He turned around and delivered a fast ball right over the plate. The batter hit a high, lazy ball and the pitcher sauntered up and caught it. “Third out,” he yelled, and the teams changed sides.

When my turn to bat came, I stood tall at home base.

The new pitcher, grinned at me while he warmed up his pitching arm.  “Here we go. Here we go.” He let the ball fly.

I lined it up with my bat, swung, and missed.

“Strike one.”

I winced.

The pitcher started his wind up, putting his whole body into it. “Here it is.”

I steadied my bat and stayed focused.

“Watch out, Bug Juice,” he said, as he released the ball.

Bug Juice. What did he say? He called me Bug Juice. How could he?  And in front of everyone.

The catcher caught the ball.

“Strike two.”

I felt numb. Why did he call me that?  There wasn’t anything buggy about me. Bug Juice?  I fought back tears and forced a smile. The next ball flew past, and I heard someone say, “Strike three. You’re out.”

I dropped the bat and slunk back to the bench.

The memory hounded me for years and I searched for the meaning of bug juice. Decades later, my husband calmly explained, “Bug juice is a sweet drink that is way too sweet.”

Wow, if I would have known that at twelve, it would have crushed me. My home life was a mess and I valued friends above anything. I thought I was doing well to make and keep friends. To learn others saw me as too sweet…Ouch. It would have hurt me more than anyone could have known.

The Meaning of Life

In Complicity, Please one of the characters has died and his guardian angel explains to him that the purpose of life is to love and learn. Since writing that book I have changed my personal views slightly on that small detail. Now, I would have the guardian angel say, ” The purpose of life is to love and to learn… and once you have learned something, take it and create something with it.”

The importance of love is self-evident but the importance of learning is what you do with it, what you create. Those creations emerge from the combination of what you’ve learned, your own personal gifts and talents, and what you believe is important in life, your values. When I was in high school, two classmates collected belly button lint for their art project. They sorted it by color and placed it in clear jars. This stunning piece of artwork left most of us scratching our heads. It was a creation that fell short.

In seventh grade my friend Kay organized a group of friends to pick up debris at our local park after a huge wind storm. She had to call our city commissioner to get permission and he stopped by to check our progress. He had called the local newspaper and they sent out someone to photograph our efforts. That day but taught me how to get my photograph in the newspaper and, more importantly, the value of volunteer work, and especially of involving others in your efforts. Kay doesn’t know this but I think that day changed my life in big ways.

As an adult, my best creation story started out looking like a failure.  I had been visiting residents in nursing homes and discovered that I was good at helping them get what they wanted. My toughest case was an elderly woman whose daughter had spent her life savings and then abandoned her. The elderly woman and I worked together to document what had happened but could not convince the police to even investigate. However, we discovered a check for several thousand dollars that had never been cashed by the daughter. I had the check reissued for the elderly woman and will never forget her gratitude for that bit of prosperity.

What do you want to create in this life?

Impress a Friend

We were both ten years old when I invited Jackie over to eat marshmallow cookies. My father bought them cheap from railroad salvage, so they were cheap but they looked fancy.

We sat at the yellow kitchen table and waited for warm marshmallow cookies. I remembered how each had a puff of marshmallow with a sprinkling of coconut, all sitting on a round shortbread cookie. My mom had placed a pot holder in the middle of the table for the cookie sheet to sit on. We each had our own shiny white plate and pink napkin.

I looked at Jackie and smiled, knowing this batch of marshmallow cookies would impress her.

Ding-ding-ding. The timer on the oven went off, and Mom grabbed the oven mitt before opening the door. She reached in and pulled out the cookie sheet filled with pink marshmallow cookies. The shreds of coconut on top of each cookie had turned brown. Jackie and I stepped away from our seats so my mom could put the cookie sheet on the table. We rushed to sit while she searched for a spatula. I looked forward to having a warm cookie plopped onto my plate so I could slip it into my mouth and bite down. I could almost taste the warm marshmallow oozing over my tongue.

Just as Mom reached to lift up the first cookie for Jackie’s plate, an army of worms emerged from the cookies. They were the size of a piece of thread, and moved quickly. A dozen crawled from each cookie and headed out in all directions.

Jackie’s mouth opened in disbelief.

Mom put her kitchen mitt back on, lifted up the cookie sheet and headed for the garbage can. When all the marshmallow treats were gone and the pan was in the sink, she returned with a box of graham crackers.

“Crackers, anyone?” she said.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Jackie stood. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Janice,” she said and was gone. I felt sad to lose my friend but when I looked at Mom, she had a huge grin. We both started to laugh. Three hours later, when Dad came home, we were still laughing.