79: Setting the Place

79: Setting the Place

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less

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Setting the Place

Life is short. Use the good china.

~Author Unknown

For the past five years, I have been employed in the marketing department of an upscale retirement community. I view my job as a vocation because it taps into something I hold dear — I love working with seniors. Where some folks adore babies, kittens and puppies, I find the grace, wisdom and life experiences earned by those over the age of eighty-five a treasure trove.

Classified as a continuing care retirement community or CCRC to those of us in the business, my place of employment offers five levels of senior care. These include: independent living with supporting amenities; assisted living; sub-acute rehabilitation; skilled nursing; and memory care. The goal of a CCRC is to have seniors age in place, ideally entering the community as independent residents and then moving seamlessly through the continuum of care should the need arise.

Sounds like a plan? Perhaps to some, but for far too many, this scenario presents a major stumbling block — one that may extend beyond medical issues and financial challenges. To those of us in the field, it’s the dreadful “D” word: downsizing. Though many retirement communities offer spacious apartments — featuring open floor plans, large bathrooms equipped with every safety feature, and huge closets with built-in devices for easy access — I know of none that can accommodate all the contents of a family homestead.

I will never forget one lovely lady, a widow, who lived in a magnificent Victorian mansion. I nicknamed her “Rapunzel,” not so much for her thick white hair, neatly arranged in a long braid, but more so for the “tower” in which she lived. Her home was built with many deeply pitched staircases, diminutive bathrooms, and breathtakingly beautiful, but slippery, hardwood floors. She was quite frail, arthritic, and used a walker to navigate. Her mind, however, was razor-sharp. While her family was urging her to consider a move to a home that was more suitable for woman in her nineties, she was adamant about remaining “home, with all of my things.” When I asked her what “thing” was most precious, she directed me to the breakfront in her dining room, a huge mahogany cupboard that housed English bone china, with place settings for forty-eight guests. “You see, my dear,” she said to me, “how could I ever leave this home? No other place could ever accommodate my china like my breakfront.”

Looking at the furniture, I had to agree with her. At that moment, gleaming in the afternoon sunlight, it seemed larger than my living room! Then, she went on to reminisce about the parties, the dinners, and all of the celebrations whose memories were captured within that one piece of furniture. And at that moment, I have to say that I finally got it.

It didn’t matter that the last dinner party she had hosted was thirty-five years ago, or that the last time that china was used Ronald Reagan resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. What mattered was that, at a time in her life when she was losing so much — family, friends, her health, and maybe her home — the contents housed in that piece of furniture represented the opposite. Whenever she looked at that china, she remembered a time when she was surrounded by family and friends, a time when she excelled at arranging dinner parties, and even more so, a time when she enjoyed presiding over these celebrations as one of the most sought after hostesses of the day.

A very bright friend of mine, a psychotherapist, once told me, “When patients come into my office, and tell me that they cannot stop thinking about what I call, ‘blue elephants,’ I cannot tell them to just stop it. Even though the ‘blue elephant’ may be bad for them, cause them pain, or make them sick, the mind does not work like that. To change their behavior, I have to provide them with what I call ‘a pink giraffe,’ something else, something positive, to replace the blue elephant.”

The following week, I thought a lot about blue elephants, pink giraffes, and my ninety-year-old Rapunzel imprisoned in her “Victorian tower.” Thinking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I had an idea, and convinced my Rapunzel to help me plan a special holiday luncheon for the forty-five residents living in our assisted living community. I needed her expertise in selecting the décor, the menu, the music, and the entire venue. That, in essence, was my pink giraffe.

To my surprise, she was immediately receptive to the idea, and agreed to spend several afternoons at our retirement community that week. While there, she worked enthusiastically with our dining and recreational staffs to organize the event. Without a doubt, it was one of the most elegant affairs we had ever hosted, with Rapunzel handling every exquisite detail.

Looking back, I wish I could report that planning the luncheon, selecting the entrees, and finally hosting the event, banished the “blue elephant” immediately — it didn’t, but we did manage to make significant progress. In the coming weeks, my “Rapunzel” visited us regularly, and one day I was even able to show her a lovely apartment, with spacious rooms, each equipped with every possible safety feature. During these visits, while she did seem to enjoy the various activities, delight in the company of our residents, and appreciate the assistance from our staff, it would take nearly a year before she was ready to leave her Victorian tower.

I’ll never forget that conversation. It went something like this, “You need my help in hosting another luncheon, and this one will be better than last year’s. We’ll use real china this time, but don’t worry. I have service for forty-eight. I have a request, however: please have your dining staff make a permanent home for the china.”

And without hesitation, she added, “Because after the luncheon, we’ll both be moving in.”

~Barbara Davey

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