Thursday, June 28, 2007

An Afternoon Class

I always enjoyed my afternoon classes in college and law school. Once I passed the 2:00 lull and took a siesta break (if time and space allowed), I always found afternoons more relaxing. The shock of the morning, a thing of the past, the flow of the day is established by afternoon and, I don't know, there's just something about being able to listen and learn at that time of day. The pace feels different. Yesterday, I had a chance to experience yet another afternoon ... what shall I call it? A learning session.

Over the past few weeks, I've been busy looking for work, so Eldercation has taken a back seat. And while those efforts have been necessary, the experience has been a frustrating one. Still, I knew it was time to get back in the game and I needed to do it quickly. So that's what I did. And two phone calls into my web-researched short list, I met yet another special person in Karen Carmack, the activity director at a retirement community called The Gardens on Barry Road, (right down the street from Garden Village). I’d originally spoken with Karen several weeks ago and, after having a great chat about our shared loved of both elders and yoga, we picked out a date when I'd come up to meet with some residents. We thought it would be best to meet some folks first as a group, and then, if I passed the test, perhaps some individual interviews would follow. It’s funny, when Karen suggested the group approach, I immediately remembered my Wellington At Arapaho experience in Richardson, Texas.

Misunderstanding my initial request, Terry, (the Wellington's activity director), arranged for the residents to meet me in the large day room, just off the Wellington’s main lobby. When I arrived for what I thought was going to be my first one-on-one interview, the room already had 25 smiling faces waiting for me. Another five residents soon walked in ... followed by eight more ... followed by seven more. At one point, I think there were more than 45 people in the room. (Those are some of the Wellington folks on the left). I lovingly refer to that episode as my "surprise town meeting" but you know what? I loved it. I was forced to call an audible at the line and was able to create, with the residents' help of course, an extraordinary experience. It had been years since I had done Eldercation interviews in a group setting like that, the last time being at The Murray Hill Center in NYC, where I organized and conducted several focus groups.

Well, Karen's town meeting wasn’t going to be a surprise since we had already mapped out the plan. Still, I hadn’t really thought about preparing all that much ahead of time. My focus has been and will always be on the residents and what they have to say. I don’t want to show up some place and blabber for an hour. It’s about them – not me.

* * * * * * * * * *

After meeting Karen in the main lobby, we immediately walked down to the activity room, where about ten people were already seated at a long table.

“You’re waiting for me?” I laughed as I put down my bag. They all smiled as they watched me quietly, as I pulled a few papers from a folder.

“They said 3:30,” one man said, pointing to his watch. “We’re very precise people, you know,” he added, flashing a warm smile.

“I know, I know. I’m early. It’s a bad habit."

At that, I walked around and introduced myself to each person one at a time, shaking their hands or patting them on the back. The next thing I knew, I was sitting across from the group, explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing. As I talked, more people came in from the left, and then the right. I’d say a total of about 15 folks showed up, a perfect size to get a good discussion going. Or so I'd hoped.

Just in case I was met with a wall of shy silence, I printed out a few materials - past interview excerpts I could use to stimulate discussion. I also decided to pose a few Eldercation questions and, as you’d imagine, there were one or two people who couldn’t wait to have their say. But then others chimed in and … we were off to the races. It was so much fun. People talked about their experiences growing up during The Great Depression, what it was like growing up on a farm during that time and how that compared to the city experience. People talked openly about the changes they've seen, both good and bad, with the wonders of today's technology. It' s so much fun to talk with folks who have had a box seat for observing the past century's changes. It’s always fun. Soon after we started, Karen stopped working at her desk in back of us and wandered over to take a seat at the table. She was nice enough to snap a few photos which you see here. An hour an a half later – (it felt like ten minutes) it was time to wind up. All I know is, I want to interview every single person who sat at that table.

“Everyone qualifies,” I joked at one point. “Because you all have something to share, you all have a story.”

Barry Road. It looks like I'm going to become very familiar with that street over the next several weeks. I have my work cut out for me - two terrific retirement communities.

Who am I kidding?
I'm gonna have a blast.

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