After four heavy posts in a row, I reckon it’s time for something fun. This post is about one of my favorite jobs that I’ve ever had. In case you haven’t read about my insane job history, suffice to say that I have dipped my toes in a lot of different gigs to try to find a good fit. This one was by and large among the best.
After grad school I was having trouble finding a position in Atlanta that I felt equipped for. Though I had excelled at the conceptual side of public health, I had done pretty poorly in the technical aspects of my master’s program like epidemiological methods and biostatistics, which are pretty key skills to being hired at the big agencies. I passed both but there had been tears and pleading. What I did know how to do was take care of people, educate folks about health issues, and be a decent leader.
In August of 2012 I replied to an opening at Meals on Wheels/Senior Citizens Services of Metropolitan Atlanta. I interviewed for a position as a Senior Center Manager. MoWA/SCS was going through some structural changes and the current manager at this particular Senior Center was about to retire. I interviewed with the Director of Meals on Wheels Atlanta, several people from the Board of Directors, and current staff at the Northside Shepherd Center, where the opening was.
The primary purpose of MoWA and SSC is to serve underprivileged and at-risk senior citizens. The nonprofit Meals on Wheels side provided hot meals to shut-in seniors who couldn’t afford their own food on a regular basis, and the Fulton County-based Senior Citizens Services side was there to run these adult day centers, where old folks could be bussed in to spend their day with other old folks instead of at home alone. Centers like the one I was applying to put on programming to edify the quality of life for these generally poor, generally alone (sometimes outright abandoned) senior citizens. Things like bridge tournaments, movie and spa days, and art classes filled their six or seven hours at the center, in addition to monthly field trips to magical far-off and enchanting places like Wal-Mart. We were there to serve people who really needed help in their old age. Remember that for later, it’s important.
I had never considered working in a geriatric field. I didn’t know that I liked old people, and as a matter of fact they actually creeped me out a bit (not as much as new babies though). American culture is not very good about how we treat our elders, with the norm being to put them in a home out of sight and out of mind and visit when it’s convenient. That’s pretty fucked up. These are the people that busted their asses to make a life in this country and raise up our parents who then busted their asses to put us here, able to spend time writing fucking blogs.
Go call your grandma right now, I’ll wait.
Once I got the job and understood the plight of some of my charges, there was no looking back. Some of them had been all but abandoned by their families, who couldn’t afford their care (or just didn’t care). Some of them were pretty far off their rockers. But even more of these folks were just stuck in the system– the combination of Medicare, the Atlanta Housing Authority, and Fulton County public services is a fucking snake’s nest of red tape and incompetence. Getting anything done required going through a dozen separate channels, which was still frequently met with a flat out “No” based on some obscure government rulebook that I never got a copy of. I learned really quickly that working for a city government was essentially a mountain of paperwork and dead ends. Sometimes the best I was going to be able to do was make everybody’s day a little better by just being there.
I fell in love with my geezers immediately. The attendance at this particular center had dwindled down over the prior months because the former manager (now my direct supervisor) had started her own decline into senility and was exceedingly difficult to be around.
Imagine the grumpiest, meanest, most disillusioned person you can think of, then have them work in a government job for 40 years, and they might end up somewhere close to this old lady.
Suffice to say that people decided to stop coming to that center because she made it kind of hellish. My task was to get attendance back up so we wouldn’t lose funding and get shut down.
I started making monthly calendars full of classes and activities that I thought my seniors would enjoy. I was starting out with only two or three of them coming every day, so it wasn’t that hard. We played cards. We watched “stories” on TV. We talked. Most of these guys just wanted somebody to talk to, to be honest. I was a fresh face and I was kind, and that went a long way. Within a few weeks we were up to a dozen and then fifteen and then twenty seniors every day. My programming started getting more interesting– I added health class, spanish class, more art, cooler excursions, and BINGO!! Oh my god do old people love them some bingo. I would don a sparkly feather boa and play Otis Redding and The Temptations and we’d play four games of bingo in a row. At the end I just gave everybody prizes because why not. Some girl scout troop or book club was always donating presents (mostly socks), so there was plenty to be had. We had a blast.
The best part of my job was spending time with and getting to know my seniors. These were people who had lived in Atlanta since the early part of the 20th century. Some of them recalled stories of their families sharecropping and growing up in a segregated city; they’d been here through the Civil Rights Movement, Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landing, and everything between. Some of them had marched on Washington. One marched on Selma & Montgomery.
These were real fucking people. And everyone had forgotten about them. They were there passing their days playing gin rummy with me. How does this happen?
Naturally I had my favorite seniors and I had my favorite days at MoWA/SSC. To give you a picture of my herd, I had a core group of about five seniors that came every single day, rain or shine. They were:
- Miss A., the most “with it” senior I had and one of the few who was still in touch with her family. Miss A. would fill any quiet moment with stories about her granddaughter, who had been in the Navy and who doted on Miss A. as often as possible. Miss A. used to work as a nanny and spoke of those children as if they were her own as well. There were a lot of people looking out for Miss. A. and I think her comparatively good health reflected that. Her memory wasn’t the best, and I could tell you word-for-word this one story about her granddaughter because she told it to me at least once a day. But she was sweet, funny, and very saucy.
- Miss L., who was my most far-gone mentally. She couldn’t stand up straight and frequently fell asleep in the middle of conversation. She wore her purse around her neck and didn’t always have her wig on straight. I was most protective of Miss L. even though (or maybe because) she probably wasn’t aware of a lot that went on around her. I once lost Miss L. at Wal-Mart– terrifying– and found her in the nail polish department giving herself a fresh coat of stripper-shoe red. I did a home visit once to the housing building where Miss L. lived. It’s a bit hard to describe how I felt seeing her living situation; there was no food in the cupboards and she had torn apart most of the stove (“to prevent fires”). There was no more than a couch for furniture and her belongings were strewn across the floor everywhere. The walls were full of scratch marks. She was pretty blind so I doubt if she knew that her lights didn’t work, and the bolts on the door were broken. After that day I assigned her a social worker to get her into a different program with a bit more personal care. Though initially this move was met with bureaucratic roadblocks (I found out that I was not the first to try and get her a personal caregiver), we eventually got her some extra support and supervision.
- Mr. C., a war vet confined to a motorized wheelchair. Mr. C. had the richest stories of anybody. It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk to you and he wasn’t always coherent, but on a good day he’d tell you about growing up in the countryside outside of Atlanta, losing his legs in the Korean War, and watching his siblings take part in sit-ins and marches during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. He always smelled kinda funny, like old people do, but he was an absolute gentleman and always said “please,” “thank you,” and “much obliged.”
- Mr H., THE KING GRUMP. This man would hardly ever speak more than a loud angry grunt at me, and when he did speak it was fussing over something I did wrong. He made it clear that he wasn’t a big fan of white folks, but that I was tolerable. We would have minutes-long stare downs, which I always inevitably lost. I could tell he loved me and I loved him.
- Miss S., one of only three caucasian seniors that ever came to the center. She had AIDS and was estranged from her children, but she dated a man that she spoke about constantly and who brought her gifts from time to time. She cheated a lot playing cards, and I pretended not to notice. Every day she asked me to play Frank Sinatra on the stereo and she sang along.
My favorite day was definitely a trip we took to go bowling. For old people, things like movies and bowling cost like one dollar with a senior discount, which I also was granted as the mother duckling of this little troupe. On this one trip, we grabbed lunch at Long John Silvers (another something that is inexplicably wildly popular among old people) and went to a bowling alley in southwest Atlanta. It was completely deserted except for us in the middle of the day and the alley attendants were playing some very loud down-south booty bump & bass soundtrack, which my seniors were surprisingly familiar with. Like, really familiar with. I don’t think anybody hit more than three pins at a time the whole day. It could not have been more perfect.
A second favorite memory was a day I brought in a woman to teach some computer skills and technology. The seniors got caught up in her explaining social media and started asking questions about The Faces Book and Twizzler. “CAN THE INTERNET READ YO MIND???” …hilarity.
As attendance at the center grew, the saltiness and backlash from the old manager (again, my supervisor now) seemed to grow in tandem. All of a sudden there were thirty more rules I had to abide by, dozens of logs I had to upkeep (many of which were out of date long before my job started), and the answer to almost everything became “No.” Can I have an outside doctor come visit to give a speech on diabetes? No. Can we buy tickets to the Christmas light show? No. What about a cooking class? No. There wasn’t always a reason that my requests were denied but the understanding was that this woman was on her way to retirement and the MoWA director assured me that if I just waited it out, things would get better.
Unbeknownst to me, there was a reason that this old woman was so haggish towards me. I found out around April of 2013 that the incentive for hiring me– a young, cheerful, educated white lady– was to fit into a restructuring of the Northside Senior Center. Essentially the center was having a hard time getting funding together from private donors. They wanted to recruit some new seniors from a different demographic to bring in a little dough. Not quite following at first, I was happy to have more people come to the center.
But these geezers were really different; they were hardly even geezers. These were rich white retired ladies from the affluent Atlanta area of Buckhead. These ladies took yoga and tai chi classes. They brought their Pomeranians to the center. They had their grown children bring them lunch, or take them out– no Meals on Wheels sodium-free roast beef for them. These seniors didn’t need the services I was there to offer. They did not even try to make company with my current group. I had to cater programming to their wants, which were often of zero interest to my original seniors. The unspoken idea was that my seniors would literally die out and we’d be left with younger, more independent older adults to work with. $ $ $
[Insert a loud screeching halt sound effect]
No way dude.
I was really offended when I finally pieced together what was going on. I felt like I had been duped. I suddenly understood why my supervisor held such a grudge against me. She was still a mean old woman, but her constant refusal to help me made more sense. I couldn’t blame her; I myself did not want to be a part of this “transition.” I wasn’t working to serve rich old Buckhead Betties. That’s not why I got into public health, and that’s not why I took the job.
I quit my position shortly thereafter. I explained my stance to the Meals on Wheels Director, but I did not tell anyone else– fellow staff or seniors– about my decision. I really regret this. It doesn’t much matter to me what anyone thinks of me, but I should have said goodbye to my seniors. I really deeply cared for everyone there. I was angry at the time but I should have told them myself. They deserve to know I didn’t just walk out on them like other people had. This will always be a sad spot in my heart.
Working at the senior center taught me a couple things. One is that working for the government is like trying to break through a steel-reinforced brick wall. You have to be patient and you have to cross all your T’s, or you will not pass Go. You will not even move. Secondly, I learned in a harsh way that funding is king for programs like this. Regardless of any stated mission and values, the higher-ups are always strapped for cash and will do what they have to do to stay floating.
Finally, and most importantly, I learned a deep respect and affection for senior citizens. Old folks in America are largely forgotten, neglected, and even abused. They did nothing to earn this treatment except age. And oh, how America, land of the young and beautiful, fears aging. Old folks are in many ways helpless and disempowered, but they are also our most immediate source of experience, history, and wisdom. Those folks are why we are all here right now. So fucking go call your grandparents. Don’t let your own kids forget your parents. Don’t YOU forget your parents. And if you see an old person, just slow the fuck down and say hello. You might be surprised.