As someone who has been a lifeguard at a senior facility for over five years, the program peaked my interest as something I could do to give back to the community before I graduate in May, but I had no idea what to expect.
What do they do at the nursing home? Would the residents be open to conversation? Would they’re memories be sharp like my grandfather, or do they struggle with memory disorders like my grandmother?
I went into it with an open mind but along with around ten other new volunteers, we worried that the generation gap would cause us to struggle getting to know seniors not named grandma or grandpa.
We were met on SUNY Oswego’s campus by Kayla Kelly, one of the main coordinators of the program, who drove us to St. Francis Commons Assisted Living Residence on Burkle Street in Oswego. During the ride she answered some of our concerns heading into this endeavor.
"Basically what happens is for two hours every week I will take you guys to either St. Francis or Seneca Hill, depending on the week, and you’ll get to know the residents of the home who usually can’t wait to spend time with us,” Kelly said. “Usually you will be split up into smaller groups and be sent around to get involved with whatever the seniors are doing or start an activity with them if they want, the important thing is them getting to know our faces and that everyone has a good time.”
As we enter the home, we are met by St. Francis activities coordinator Peggy LiVoti, who gave us a tour of the entire premises.
“We break this place up into three wings A, B and C,” LiVoti said. “A is for our residents who have Alzheimer’s or dementia, they may tell you the same story more than once and they have no filter, but they are a lot of fun and they love when you guys come and see them.”
I was surprised by how elegant each wing looked, if I was someone in need of assisted living, there isn’t much more I could ask for than what they had at St. Francis. There were beautiful and comfortable chairs in the lounges with televisions, games and puzzles available to use.
What I liked the most though was that in each wing at least one resident was spending time with family that were visiting and eating dinner with their loved ones. All my life I had heard that this is where the elderly go when their family is distant or no longer around, so seeing that indeed there was family for some of the residents was something that I wasn’t expecting to see.
As we enter the “B” wing, Peggy introduces us to a petite woman by the name of Mary who was working diligently on a 1000-piece Pepsi jigsaw puzzle. I never quite understood how anyone could figure those things out, all the pieces were a blur with strange edges in my mind, but Mary was a master.
“I just love how all the pieces fit just right,” she said. “Usually my friend Val and I sit here and work on these for weeks at a time, this one here is going on two weeks now.”
Seeing as this time she was all alone, myself and two other volunteers stayed to help her out, her smile had to be surgically removed.
As I sat and gazed upon the half-completed puzzle, there was something about the front grill of the Pepsi truck that my mind became fixated on. It became my mission to fill the holes and complete that portion of the puzzle for Mary, who had sat back and let the three of us take in the puzzle.
“Once we finish a puzzle, we leave it out for a day or two to show the others our masterpiece, then we take it apart and start a new one,” Mary said.
It would be so hard for me to work so hard on something, and essentially throw it away like they do. But for them it’s the journey of completing the puzzle rather than the end result that keeps them engaged in each brain teaser.
Each piece found brought a smile to Mary’s face as if she had won the lottery, it made me feel so good to help her in this quest toward completion.
“What are you doing Mary? Taking a break and letting the kids show you up?” said a woman that could’ve been two of the tiny Mary, this had to be Val.
Just as fast as she introduced ourselves to us, Val’s attention turned to the puzzle with a Sherlock Holmes-esque magnifying glass that was almost as big as her head.
“I bring it so Mary can actually see the pieces,” Val said sarcastically.
Each piece I found made the next piece more challenging, but within about 30 minutes, I had found all the pieces of the grill but one, and the hole it left was gaping.
It was a piece with five sides, almost looking like a poorly outlined person with a head, arms and legs. After a while the rest of the group noticed my struggle and tried fitting pieces in to this slot, but to no avail as the piece was left empty as time was expiring on my visit.
I look forward to coming back to St. Francis and seeing how long it took Mary and Val to eventually finish the puzzle, only to tear it up the next day.