Tuesday, March 6, 2007

"Ohhhhhhhoklahoma ..."

A Texas Goodbye - For Now - Yesterday was a transition day - most of it spent on the road on my way up to Oklahoma. But, before I started the drive north, I made sure to set aside the morning to run a few important errands and, I really wanted to go over to the Waterford to say goodbye to Liz. She's been nothing short of fantastic during my Texas stay - the most special person in terms of setting up interviews for me.

Liz was out at an appointment when I got to The Waterford so, to kill some time, I planted myself on a couch in the sitting area outside the dining room. I took a few deep breaths and relaxed, pretty much for the first time since I'd been in Texas; certainly for the first time in a retirement community. It was quiet as I sat ... and looked around ... and thought. Two women residents were sitting on the couch opposite me and when I first dropped into the couch, we exchanged warm smiles, but nothing more. I opened my book ("The Jungle" - part of my 'return to high school reading list' challenge), and every minute or so, glanced up to see if Liz was back. But I also took the time to watch the two women. And I felt sad.

Listen, I know my goal, when I visit retirement communities, is to seek out the best and the brightest so the interview process can go well. But I see what I see and hear what I hear, and there is another very real side to my experience whenever walk around and mix in with these community residents. And today, when I found myself not setting up a camera, not preparing my questions and not watching a Valentine's Day celebration, I was able to simply sit and quietly observe. Nothing more.

I'd seen this sadness before and, although it's very much the exception in most of the retirement communities, it still hits me hard whenever I see it. One woman's head kept drooping as she nodded off, over and over again. The other woman kept staring down at the ground, only every once in awhile looking up and adjusting her sunglasses to see who was passing. I'd seen these two women before when I came to The Waterford. They've been right there on that same couch. I remember saying hi to them the very first day.

As I sat, alternating between "The Jungle," glances at the front door and watching the two women on the couch, I wondered more and more about the pros and cons of retirement and assisted living communities. The emergence of these senior living options over the past decade has certainly added more slots on the spectrum; it' s not as black and white as it used to be. Years ago, you know, there was "home" - the place you lived in for the majority of your life. And then, if necessary and only under the most dire of circumstances, there was a "nursing home." Not a hell of a lot in between. And I thought more about this shift in senior living. My head started to swim with questions. Questions that have certainly been sitting there, but I've been so busy organizing and preparing for interviews, I never took the time do dig deeper and in a different direction. Why do people come to live in these communities? Who makes the decision to enter these places? The residents? Their children? Do they make the decision together? How do the residents feel when they move in? How do the children feel when their parents move in? I've actually asked some of these questions and will be posting material on the Eldercation.com website as I develop it. In time, as I travel and write more, I want to find out what it's really like for these folks as well as speak with staff and ancillary support personnel like visiting nurses, massage therapists, doctors, drivers and the like.

When Liz came back from her appointment, we went into the activity room and I told her what I was thinking and feeling as I sat on the couch. Of course, she and I then got into another great conversation - a different conversation. A conversation I wished I had had with her weeks ago. The talk turned into an informal interview where I had a chance to hear from one of the best activity directors out there, about important issues surrounding senior living. The more I think about it, it would be a shame to limit my experience solely to the residents, although that will continue to be the fuel that runs the Eldercation engine. It's the interviews that bring me the joy and wisdom I want so very much to share with others. Still, I want to hear the whole story and hear it from all the participants. Because staff members do, in fact, play a crucial role in these communities, as do the family members. Come to think of it, one very unfortunate fact is that I haven't seen all that many family visitors during my first month and, although I know this isn't necessarily a scientific sample, I know this is pretty much sadly the case. Liz shook her head when I mentioned it, confirming the hunch. More on this at a later time, that's for sure.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ohhhhhhhoklahoma.... - What a gorgeous day for a drive. With the back feeling better, I drove up to Oklahoma City, about a three and a half hour drive, which is no big deal for me. I remembered the terrain from the initial drive down to Texas from Wichita, so I wasn't surprised by the flatness of the land. The sign you see below was possibly the smallest state welcome sign I'd ever seen and I was pretty disappointed when I saw it, since my goal is to post these sign photos each time I enter a new state. And yet, perhaps my favorite part of this photo has nothing to do with signs. Take a look at that sky! The photo doesn't do it justice.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was great to arrive at my Oklahoma City hotel and have all arrangements already in place. I can't tell you what peace of mind it gives me to have a comfortable room waiting for me whenever I move into a new town, readying myself to meet a new group of seniors. ExtendedStay America's Robert Green and his associates, Robin and Muhammad, really did go out of their way to make sure I was set for my arrival. Of course, this traces back to my fortuitous introduction to Tim Treadwell at the ExtendedStay party at the Irving hotel. My mind is much more at ease knowing I don't have to worry as much about the hospitality aspect to this trip and I already owe a lot to Tim and the ExtendedStay people. I can't say enough about how special this chain really is and I will recommend the company every time someone asks me about a nice, reasonable and reliable place to stay while on the road.

As the front desk clerk handed me my room key, she asked me to wait a second and then handed me a basket filled with some welcome goodies. Shortbread cookies, chips and salsa - I wanted to clean up my eating act but, it was late and I was tired. As I sat back in the easy chair, quasi-watched TV and jotted down some thoughts for the day, those shortbread cookies tasted mighty fine, there's no doubt. Thank you, Robin, for nudging me off the wagon. Or is that on the wagon? I'll have to check the Seinfeld episode for the answer.

* * * * * * * * * *

Billie & E.K. - I ate lunch this afternoon with Doug Paulsen, the center supervisor from the Woodson Senior Citizen Center in Oklahoma City. Doug may very well turn out to be my Oklahoma Liz Hamlett and that's a very good thing to be, let me tell you. Doug combined a lunch at The Museum Cafe - a very nice restaurant located in Oklahoma City's Museum of Art -with a short tour of the city. We had a chance to schmooze about our shared passion for seniors and, it turns out Doug is a fellow yogi so he was able to provide suggestions about where I could practice while I’m in town. It's time to get back to it and, in fact, I'm pretty sure the practice will help to strengthen my back at this point.

After lunch, we took a short drive around the city and since I’d asked about it, Doug swung by the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, which was truly beautiful. In general, I was struck by the size of the city. Coming from a place like NYC, it's always interesting to take in the difference, breathe the air, observe the amount of traffic and watch the people. As I'd mentioned when I was in downtown San Antonio, I think you can actually feel the relaxed energy. That’s what a difference of 7.5 million human beings will do, no doubt.

And then, it was back to the center where a pretty and smiling blond woman was waiting for me in Doug's office. Her name is Billie Beal and I'd met her briefly before Doug and I went to lunch when she was busy baking a gingerbread cake in the back kitchen, apologizing for the ginger smell on her hands as she shook my hand.

After my interview with Billie, the two us stepped out into the center lobby and a tall gentleman was already standing by the door, prepared for visit with me.

"Next," I joked. We all laughed. It felt like a doctor or therapists office.

This was Mister E.K. Boggs and he was raring to go. I loved that.

Two great interviews and I haven't even been in town for 24 hours. This is the way I love it. And Doug says there are a lot more where these came from. I believe and trust him. So, far I've been very lucky in terms of the people I'm meeting. Both the seniors and the support and staff people as well. And let's not forget about the ExtendedStay folks. It's a great team out there and that's the way I see it now.

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