Thursday, February 25, 2016

Tip #6 See strength.

The Tip:
Too often, society depicts older adults as weak. I believe differently. I believe in their inherent strength and believe that they can help us find ours. Our storytelling group environment is built firmly upon the belief that older adults are our society’s leaders, not the other way around.

Same thing when you are approaching an older adult one-on-one. Try not to think of yourself as “helping” him or her. Try to consider how privileged you are to be in his or her presence, to be given access to the older adult’s hopes, fears, dreams. If you think this way, you will find yourself offering the older adult choices and freedom, you will find yourself backing off on instructions, you won’t feel the need to assign a story topic.

When you look into the eyes of an older adult, don’t see someone weak, see someone strong. Change your perspective. When the older adult sees how much you believe in him or her, he or she will let loose and have fun around you, and suddenly skyrocket in happiness, strength, confidence.

The Moment I Learned This:

For my 32nd birthday, my buds in the storytelling group pulled off the surprise party of the century for me… so far. (So far, because every year after that, they kicked things up another notch for all my birthdays and even through me two baby showers – all of which, have been mega surprises ;)

My buds couldn’t contain their own excitement. When I walked into the room, they already began singing “Happy Birthday.” I looked that our writing table, and it was filled to the edges with cakes, sweets, drinks, and fried chicken.

The cake was huge, and the drinks were heavy. I couldn’t believe my buds had carried all that from the store to their homes, and from their homes to the senior center. Many of them walk with canes. Our room at the time was on the second floor at the far end of the building – which meant my buds had to haul all the weight down a series of long, narrow hallways, after getting off the elevator. Plus, when did they plan all of this and delegate tasks to themselves? That must have taken a lot of work! If they could pull this off, I knew they could pull off anything.

A whole sea of happy emotions washed over me as they sang. And most of all, I felt grateful, surprised and proud. And I realized those feelings weren’t just my feelings at that particular moment, but something I feel when I am with my older adults buds every week.

I started thinking about all the little things they do for the group every week… tasks that they have spontaneously delegated to themselves over time… how really, they run the group, not me… Beatrice coordinates the reading sequence and keeps track of time; Aileen makes sure the table is quiet during writing time so everyone can focus; Norman stays after the hour to make copies of the handwritings for everyone; Mo stays after to straighten out the room; Robert asks if anyone has a birthday that week, and if someone says yes, Joe leads us in singing a song; and all of them take turns walking Joe, who is blind, downstairs to help him catch the van after the session.

I started thinking back, to the first field trip I ever took them on, to Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate station WHYY. We were invited by the station to give a special presentation to their reporters and staff. I was so worried about all the logistics, like how my buds would get on and off our van. And they turned out totally fine, beyond fine. We had a blast presenting at a state-of-the-art conference room with a huge screen, and just as much of a blast singing goofy songs on the way there and back. Laughing and singing with everyone on the van, I wondered why I had worried so much, for so many weeks before the trip. I realized that they were capable of great things and all I needed to do was to let them be, and motivate them.

The seniors burst into Happy Birthday song mode 4 more times during the hour of my surprise party. One time Robert started it, giggling; one time Joe started it, with a jazzy vibe; one time Greta started it, laughing out loud. And one time, just everyone, somehow, altogether, spontaneously, at the same time.

A Story to Help Remember the Moment:

Beatrice Newkirk


Our Writing Teacher

Our writing teacher’s birthday was last week. She went away so we had to have something for her this week. She is a good person. We love having her for our teacher. We have learned so much from her and she is learning a lot from us. Everyone in this class enjoys her. We all hope she has lots more birthdays to come. We want her to know we really love her. We all look forward to seeing her every Thursday from one o’clock until two. Madi (our teacher’s teen intern) has been helping out a lot. We love her too. We all love to work together.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Tip #5 Take 10 for yourself.

The Tip:
It's almost crazy to suggest this, I know. We are all so busy, rushing everywhere every day. And reaching out to an older adult is one more thing on our schedule. How can you find 10 extra minutes to give to, gasp, yourself? This is something I personally still struggle with. I make my appointments back to back more often than not, and when one thing spills over into the next, it's the opposite of a 10-minute cushion that I am left with. That's why I find it important to schedule into my calendar a 10-minute cushion BEFORE every time I call my grandma on the phone or attend a storytelling session with my older adult buds.

It's different for different people, but for me, it helps when I take a walk. The time I walk to the storytelling group is when I clear my mind of all my other concerns or responsibilities from the day, and quiet my heart to receive whatever it is that the group will offer me in the next hour. After that hour, more often than not, I find myself returning to my personal concerns or responsibilities with fresh eyes. Sometimes my older adult buds' stories may offer a specific solution to something I am struggling with; without exception every time the stories offer me hope and motivation that it is possible to come up with a solution.

The Moment:
This tip is inspired by the moment I read a personal blog post by one of our volunteers, Jen McGhee, especially this part: “The Best Day of My Life So Far provides a place and a space where people across generations can connect on a deeper level that can be tricky to find in our super busy, hyper-productive society, especially for older adults. For an hour each week, we get to come together to laugh, write, and share stories about our human experience or whatever happens to be of interest to us that day. Around the same time that Best Day came into my life, and partially influenced by the organization, I made the decision to stop letting my busy life get away from me and rededicate myself to spending quality time on a regular basis with my grandma.”

People who volunteer with The Best Day of My Life So Far program come from all walks of life, from teenagers to people who are proud older adults themselves, with different personalities, interests and backgrounds and the most dedicated and passionate ones have one thing in common. They tend to be the busiest people, with great careers, social lives and other interests and responsibilities. Counter-intuitive, right, that the people with the least time to spare give others the most time? Besides sitting with our older adults to hear and record their stories every week, Jen also works behind the scenes on Best Day’s fundraising efforts, while balancing a demanding full-time job, fun life, and takes art history and ceramics classes after work. I am so grateful for Jen not only as a volunteer but as a friend.

The Story:
Jen McGhee

Growing up, my two favorite places were the home of my grandparents, Gramagee & Grampagee (a hybrid of gram/p and our last name, McGhee, which inexplicably lost the H when combined) & Aunt Ellen and the library. Time spent with them in their old Victorian home and reading made my young world go round. I was the kind of kid who'd trail behind my mom in the store, tears running down my face as I finished the last pages of a particularly poignant story. From conversations with my grandparents to books to documentaries to podcasts and radio shows, I became enamored with the ability to experience another's narrative.

I've spent the past few years reflecting on this power of storytelling as a medium to transform self, others, and society as a whole. One night, while having one of these introspective moments, I simultaneously decided to research volunteer opportunities. On the first page of the first website I went to, Storytelling Facilitator for The Best Day of My Life So Far was listed. Up until that moment, I had no idea such a thing existed and was intrigued by the serendipity of it. I emailed Benita right away to express my interest and heard back from her almost immediately.

After our initial conversation, I did some research on Best Day and in keeping with the theme of 'bests', discovered that my best friend from middle school, Cara Scharf, was on the Board of Directors and head of the Development Committee. When I mentioned the connection with Cara to Benita during our first phone conversation, she responded that she was literally supposed to be on the phone with Cara at that exact moment and had to call her as soon as we got off of the phone. While we laughed about the serendipitous connection, we decided to confuse Cara by having me send her a text out of the blue to tell her that Benita would call her soon. From the get-go, things clicked and the energy within the organization was great.

I've been working with the group for three months now and feel grateful for the existence of Best Day and for the opportunity to work as a facilitator and development officer. Two of my overarching goals in life are to effect social change on a macro level and create opportunities to share our humanity on a personal level. Best Day accomplishes both of these in a real and lasting way. Each week, I am blown away by the words shared by the older adults. The depth of beauty, insight, and pure poetry that comes from a sheet or two of paper exquisitely written in the span of 30 minutes is stunning. One of the stories that sticks out from our most recent session was a story about parakeets. Who knew that a three minute short story about a group member's children's pet birds could leave you with tears in your eyes?

The Best Day of My Life So Far provides a place and a space where people across generations can connect on a deeper level that can be tricky to find in our super busy, hyper-productive society, especially for older adults. For an hour each week, we get to come together to laugh, write, and share stories about our human experience or whatever happens to be of interest to us that day. Around the same time that Best Day came into my life, and partially influenced by the organization, I made the decision to stop letting my busy life get away from me and rededicate myself to spending quality time on a regular basis with my grandma; there is no one else like her on earth and as the old song says that she lovingly sings to us time and time again, we belong to the mutual admiration society. I'm excited to be a part of Best Day and look forward to watching our organization grow and impact the lives of countless older adults and their communities.

… And below is the parakeet story that inspired Jen’s personal story, of course ;)

Liz Abrams
Two Birds

Adam and Eve parakeets, the children’s intro to the wild life.

Yes she henpecked him

At night he would pick the lock on the cage, ease out of the cage cove
Out he would fly- 

He hung out all night
Day in and day out

She always squaked, squabbled, nagged
And cleaned his feathers

Each night, he made his grand escape

Before returning home in the morning to his cage
He, Adam, would fly to each room
And pick our hair, our cheek
And wake us for the new day

Then Adam returned home to his henpecked environment

This ritual continued for almost a year

Our family commented one day, 
One day, we are going to find Eve, flattened out
And Adam will be out of his misery

And then, it happened

One night, Adam and Eve, both out of the cage, walking on the living room floor and conversating

She fell over and died
The next day the children shoe-boxed her, buried her in the backyard facing the kitchen window

Adam stood duty on the kitchen window facing Eve’s grave

Never moved or ate anymore food-
Just looked out daily, without movement

And one morning, Adam lay on the kitchen floor, dead of a broken heart

A henpecked man does not mean an unhappy man if she’s the Love of his Life.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Tip #4 Choose happiness.

The Tip:
Life is a weaving of good and bad days, small and big moments. I believe that there is always a positive lesson to be found in our past experiences, even if they were devastating and something we have bottled up for decades. I was inspired to start this organization because of a series of phone calls with my grandma. These calls taught me that when an older person speaks from the heart, and a younger person slows down to listen, stories can lead to genuine conversations and a genuine friendship. Many of my grandma's stories are about difficult situations or complicated emotions, but after sharing them, she would laugh in the purest, deepest way because she realizes she has just confronted something that has held her back for years. 

The Moment:
Some of the most devastating stories I have heard over the years led to some of the happiest moments. This set of stories from Millie did exactly that for both her and me. Millie opened up a little more, week by week, story by story, and after every group session she and I stayed after to chat more privately about what she had written. Every week, I could see a greater strength and happiness in her eyes, until one day, she had a total breakthrough. She did the impossible. She broke free from a traumatic childhood experience that had held her back for decades. She said this: "This experience caused me to lose my voice. I am regaining my voice through writing about it."  She wrote down these feelings for me and let me take a picture, so we can both remember it, word for word, spoken in her voice. After showing Millie the picture on my phone, we looked at each other and we cried tears of joy. 

The Stories:
Millie Lilly

The cold and snow have limited my ability to get out as much as usual.  I am one of many who really struggle with the conditions.

A lot of my time was spent in cold climates.  When I was four and a half years old, my Air Force family moved to St. John’s Island, Newfoundland.  My older sister, younger brother, father, and pregnant mother lived in a house at the top of a hill.  We lived in the basement without a refrigerator.  The family who owned the house lived upstairs.  They had a son.

The wind blew off the frozen water bringing icy cold along with the sounds of the seals being clubbed to death in the early morning.  My father tells me the seals sounded just like babies crying.

I don’t think there was much thinking about the effects of hearing that crying on the adults or young children.

Newfoundland was a harsh place in many ways.  Some countries sent people they no longer wanted.  Surely some of those people did nothing to deserve it.

Millie Lilly
The Beginning

One of the hardest things about being far from S. Carolina was being away from my Grandmother. When she looked at me I could tell she loved me and I always felt safe with her.

St. John’s Island, Newfoundland was a long way from my nanny. I believe she would have seen something was going on that neither of my parents could see. My mother was pregnant with 3 children under the age of 6 years old. She didn’t have much time nor was she inclined to encourage her children to talk to her. My father was hungry for an older man to pay attention to him. The man who owned the house lived upstairs from our basement apartment and was more than willing to play the part of the older man in my father’s life. 

Harold was his name. His wife and son Tommy – who was around eight – lived with him. They were from England. It turns out Newfoundland was a hot bed of pedophiles. People expelled from their country of origin…

Millie Lilly
Just Tell Someone

I sat on the ground playing so it must have been during the summer I turned five years old.  The ground would have been too cold any other time of the year.

A few feet away my father and Harold were talking.  They stood in front of the house Harold owned and my family lived in the basement apartment.  A police car siren could be heard going by.  Harold said to my father, “You don’t want the police to get you, do you Ken?”  “Oh no”, my father said, “you don’t want the police to get you.”

Harold had been telling me how if I told anyone what he was doing to me, the police would do worse things to me.  Even at five years old, I knew he was jerking me around, but I couldn’t hold on to it enough to figure out to get help.

Harold was always thinking of ways to drive home I couldn’t tell anyone.  He was afraid about my father and my sister who was a year and a half older.  He knew I didn’t have a voice with my mother.  He never worried about me telling her.  He would threaten me with telling her I had done something wrong whenever he wanted to force me to do something.  When the baby was born dead, he said more people would die if I told.