I spent Saturday with the marvelous Sam Taylor and her beau, Liam Richards. We had arrived at Providence Rest Home in Westville with a fairly simple goal: High Tea. The contingent from Pablo Honey (a marvelous boutique store in Hillcrest) had been roped in by yours truly after a cup of tea and a Lego building session. This is how most arrangements ought to be made. I think the G8 would be improved by having foreign ministers sift through Legos looking for that onedamnedpieceIsawjustoneminuteagoIsweartogod. More work would be done this way.
A quick tirade: it concerns me that the rise of the modern High Tea has seen diminishing returns in pastry sizes. A cupcake is already a small version of a cake. We then got mini cupcakes, which are small versions of small versions of cakes. This did not end there (oh no). The micro cupcake has recently been rolled off the zeitgeist production line. This is, essentially, a small version of a small version of a small version of a cake. Eventually we will be expected to consume ever more existential confectionary items. Sub-atomic cakes? Quantum biscuits? Schrodinger’s pasties? I digress.
The morning found us arriving at Providence armed with an assortment of home-made goodies. Our caravan was shepherded up the steps to the living room. We were bundled with large Tupperware’s of sandwiches, savory muffins, chicken liver parfait’s, custard tarts, collections of strange chickpea and sweet potato muffinette’s… (exhales) … variety was not found wanting.
Insofar as retirement homes are concerned, it is nothing short of marvelous. Little old ladies exert their terrifying authority over the flower beds. Everything blooms the whole year round out of fear. The gardens are maintained in a perpetual state of magnificence comparable to sets from The Dark Crystal. A dead, dried begonia is hung from the veranda as a warning.
I was walking through to the kitchen to coordinate with the splendid staff a tea trolley. I was intercepted in the corridor by a matron escorting a woman (take it as a given, she was old).
“Ask me how old I am.”
“No. 103. You were a bit off.”
The living room is comfortable. Everything at the home has that sweet-spot combination of function and comfort. It is a credit to the support staff that there is personality to the place. Occupants have their own rooms with their own autonomy. The walls are festooned with pictures. More often than not, these had been drawn by the residents. Delicate little orchids take pride of place on plinths and stands. Their brittle stems are heaving with flowers. They probably heard what happened to the begonia…
For some of us, it was not our first rodeo. I had visited Providence on several occasions to do a similar event. This was no different. The platters were arranged on antique coffee tables in the living room and everyone tucked in. From there it was business as usual.
What do I mean by business as usual?
The elderly do not want to be entertained. They want to be spoken to.
We just sat. Our little group dispersed themselves among the residents and chatted merrily for the next two hours. Every now and then a tray of treats was passed around. For the rest, it was simply a morning spent in light conversation. Incredible the memory older generation’s have for details. One lady particularly recalled with vivid clarity previous visits. Conversation bounced from careers to birdlife and everything in between. Sometimes things were shouted across the room. This was followed by repeated entreaties of “WHAT?” The highlight was a one liner by an old duck referring to a particularly senile resident. She looked Liam square in the eye and said, “You know, sometimes when I am talking to her, she goes quiet. I am not sure if she died or I died.”
I don’t think we needed to come with food for it to be an occasion.
As is often the point, the youngest play musical chairs. We shifted between the residents, making sure that we had an opportunity to speak with everyone. I had been told by the matron that some of them had gotten dressed for the occasion. The 35-year-old (or was she 103?) had put on her best tracksuit. At one point a woman leant in and said softly:
“They have forgotten about us you know.”
There is a feeling one has in the presence of the elderly. I think, if you were raised right, you are taught to be polite. The thick mask of politeness balances on your nose as you try not to swear or talk about hentai. However, you don’t think one day you would be forgotten about. I mean, why would you? Your parents are a phone call away. If you feel lonely, you can visit a friend or go to the store. There is an infinite number of options available to the young to be remembered. You don’t think that these would narrow. Your life as you live it is eternal, isn’t it? Why would you, having lived a full life, be forgotten?
Then, one day, you find yourself in a place where the objective is to wait. To wait until you die. It makes sense. You have done your part. You are not contributing to the lives of others anymore. You no longer have the ability to live your own unassisted. You are twiddling thumbs. Each twiddle passes the time. What are you doing to be remembered?
I have my own, fiercely private, opinions on charity. What we do at providence is not charity. I know some may argue semantics, but it is more reaching out than anything. I looked across the room and saw how Sam and Liam were so energetically engaged. These young people were not giving anything. They were receiving. It was a confirmation of our youth. We were receiving attitudes for our lives. You learn, even with the lightest conversation, that the big ugly things are not really there.
I think for those of us who have had the joy of sitting among the delightful residents, you get the sense that what you are doing is not necessarily good, just right. It is an opportunity to learn. The admission fee is a selection of pastries.
I don’t know how much of this epiphany will inform my attempts at community engagement. There are golden snapshots which happen every time I am lucky enough to visit Providence. They’re far too many to mention. These fleeting moments of insight into life are lessons I have been lucky enough to learn from the old. Maybe spending time with them is because of a selfish need to contextualize my own life? I wouldn’t be able to tell you. My bouts of introspection are limited to the amber liquid at the bottom of tumblers. However, I can tell you that those visits provide clarity.
How we treat death, remorse, fear… any number of terrible weights… these can all be solved by visiting an old age home.
Just don’t go without snacks.