When I thought about a senior community center prior to my time at IONA, I envisioned seniors who were no longer able to care for themselves—a room laden with wheelchairs and walkers and oxygen tanks. The thought made me sad, reflecting on my own grandparents’ degradation. I was skeptical, not in the facility itself, rather my own ability to stay positive. I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant, diverse community IONA supports. There were seniors on all spectrums of the scale; some strutted through the doors with youthful spunk and others glided with supportive assistance. They came from all different walks of life, culture, and beliefs.
Courtney and Nathaniel run a tight ship. Everything is planned to a T—from the number of milks they order for lunch to the precise placement of the tablecloths and centerpieces. Our Wednesday routine was mostly set in stone. The participants begin arriving around 10:00am, giving ample time to set up their stations for fitness class. Ms. Jerri rolls in promptly at 11:00am, ready to start class. Dumbbells and resistance bands in tow, the group set out to complete a workout that I even find challenging. It is so fun to watch everybody challenge themselves. The entire workout is geared to strengthening the muscles most important for stabilizing and mobility. It is revitalizing to see people four times my age still taking care of their bodies.
After the workout, Nathaniel and the volunteers serve lunch. This is my favorite time. I get a chance to engage with the participants and learn more about their lives. Every week I met somebody new who left me in awe, from learning about Buddhism from an ex-monk to speaking in Spanish to a group of women about Latin American culture. While the participants finished their meals, the volunteers set up for bingo with the local elementary school. Every Wednesday, a class of second graders trades off playing bingo with their “grand friends”. If the seniors were not playing bingo with the kids, they were participating in the weekly lifestyle discussion.
While working at IONA was rewarding, I did not fully understand the value of my work until recently. I was sitting behind the check-in table greeting participants when a new face came through the door: a woman in her 60’s with bright red lipstick. She seemed out of sorts; it was obviously her first time in the space. Courtney soon spotted her, greeted her, and directed her to my table. She sat down with a huff and I began to get her registered for the week. I made small talk in the meantime, asking where she is originally from and how she heard about IONA. She was far from shy. I learned all about her childhood, her life before retirement. She grew up in Puerto Rico and was raised by her mom who “never wanted to have kids”. Her relationship with her mom seemed complicated. She lived a life of adventure island hopping with her best friend, sneaking into concerts, and experimenting with drugs. She eventually found her way to the Washington Post where she had the opportunity to travel through Africa and meet Nelson Mandela. She was successful in her career and decided to retire early, right before the recession hit.
Soon after the recession her mom passed away, leaving her with a Puerto Rican beach house. The woman decided to sell the house because it was worth so much. Unfortunately, her realtor saw her as a vulnerable elderly woman and stole $100,000 from her. Never married, the woman now lives alone in an apartment in the city. Her old coworkers do not speak to her, her best friend has passed, and she has no family left. She became so lonely that she decided to look into a nursing home. She was told that there would be people her age in the facility. “I was lied to,” she explained, “Everybody was in wheelchairs with drool running down their face. We ate dinner at 4 o’clock and went to bed at 6 o’clock.” The woman fell into a deep depression and had to be medically transported to the hospital for an anxiety attack. She discovered IONA on a whim, and decided to give it a try. With tears in my eyes, I handed the woman a tissue to wipe away her own. I encouraged her that she had found the right place, that she should dive into the activities and meet new people. She looked around, took a breath, and got up to sit at a table with other women around her age.
My experience with this woman made me reflect on the needs of the elderly. It is so important for them to be stimulated and to stay active. So many of the participants at IONA have no family, they live alone or in shelters. For some, their time at IONA is the extent of their social life. My grandmother is 90 years old. She suffers from a multitude of ailments—arthritis, dementia, depression, incontinence, high blood pressure. She has suffered a stroke, had knee replacement, and survived colon cancer. She also lives alone. Granted, she has a caregiver who comes to her house 6 days a week to bathe, feed, and engage her. She is lucky. Her townhouse is a five-minute walk from my house, so she is regularly surrounded by her family. My dad brings her dinner, my mom takes her to doctor’s appointments, and my dog even keeps her company every Tuesday. My family used to take my grandmother to our local senior community center for scheduled activities. She hated nothing more. For somebody so young at heart, it was hard to see people her age struggling. My grandmother takes pride in being independent and her caregiver allows her to be just that.
Unfortunately, this is not all the case for many seniors in our nation. Necessary care is often expensive and not always covered by insurance. Resources are hard to access and many seniors do not have family to support them. Due to reasons such as these, depression is prevalent in seniors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 7 millions of Americans over the age of 65 battle with depression annually, which is not only treatable but also preventable. Furthermore, depression amplifies preexisting conditions like heart disease and diabetes and raises the cost of healthcare. IONA’s works to provide community-based services to facilitate healthy aging and healthy living. Their work is so foundational to the senior community, providing the elderly with numerous resources and services they may not otherwise have access to.