When I was 17 I worked for a year in a "geriatric care facility." Due to low staffing and even lower funding, although I was hired as a bottom-rung assistant I was soon "promoted" to entertainment coodinator.
My job was to carry out the roster of daily activities scheduled for the residents; presenting an afternoon movie, running a bingo game or leading a musical sing-a-long. The residents lived in a divide that was established via their abilities; those in wheelchairs, those who walked (with cane or without), those who knew what day it was, and those who didn't.
Regardless of their own specific status, at the designated hour all were hustled into the activity area (which also functioned as primary dining hall) for the day's entertainment.
Often I was so focused on the safe arrival and seating of my more fragile charges that it wasn't until the event was in full swing that I noticed how bored many of them were.
Once, in the midst of a performance by an especially dreadful pianist whose appearence I had arranged, a wheelchair bound woman rolled up to my side. She had lost her voice to throat cancer, and communicated solely by writing on the lined tablet she carried everywhere. Upon it she quickly scratched out in pencil the distinct shape of a G-clef, and thrust it onto my lap.
"Music," I nodded cheerily (I had been instructed to always remain cheerful).
"No," she scribbled furiously, "Not at all."
It turned out she had been a world class pianist who had immigrated from Germany during the war. After traveling the continents to record and play before enthusiastic audiences, raising three children, twice becoming a widow and then gradually losing the rote physical capabilities required to care for herself, she was stuck with a clueless 17-year old presiding over her musical entertainment.
I think of her often, but especially at those times when a friend or acquaintence will, upon misplacing their car keys, melodramatically pronounce: "I'm having a senior moment!"
The voiceless pianist, who later introduced me to her pristine recordings of Bach, Eric Satie and Faure, was trapped in a life made up entirely of moments whose direction was defined solely by being "senior."
I came to understand that "senior" in our society often translates into having little or no choice in the very things which define you as a person. Those frequently are the same things that enhance curiosity and learning, and which inhabit individuals with a sense of community and purpose.
Recently I spoke to Janice and Kevin, a pair of RiverDell residents whose last name is witheld at their request. The couple has lived in the area long enough to see their own children safely into adulthood and to welcome the births of their grandchildren.
Both Janice and Kevin still work fulltime, with no emminent plans to retire.
"We can't," Janice explains. "Not with taxes how they are."
"It's not what we planned," Kevin agrees. "But that's how it turned out."
Janice and Kevin do not want their friends and neighbors to know that retirement is not affordable for them. Yet their sense of shame is entirely unwarranted, especially since they have contributed to the community for decades.
In our area, on the March/April schedule, the is offering a Technology Workshop for Seniors, a Morning Book Club Tea and a live recreation by the Teaneck New Theatre of an episode of Lucille Ball's Old-Time Classic Radio Show.
The online schedule for Adult and Senior Programs at the simply says:
DUE TO BUDGET CUTBACKS, ADULT AND SENIOR PROGRAMS WILL BE DISCONTINUED AS OF APRIL 1, 2010.
In additon, River Edge residents recently experienced the rejection of the application for a senior center which would be located in the .
While everyone knows families are made up of individuals of varying ages, a community also constitutes family. When I was 17 it was both infuriating and incomprehensible to me that people "ended up" in an institutional setting. I burned with the injustice of their abandonment, both physical and spiritual.
It all seemed so simple to me then.
But not now.