The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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February 23, 2024

Old timers and their stories: My experience volunteering at an assisted living facility

Names have been changed for anonymity. 

After the bell rings, most students rush out of school to participate in sports, complete homework or hang out with friends, but I make my way to Bartholomew House — a nearby assisted living facility. Upon entering the building, I greet some of the seniors in the lobby and settle in to help with planned activities for the day. Whether it be trivia, Bingo or watching movies, the residents of Bartholomew House have plenty of ways to stay entertained. As I read them the newspaper and serve them daily snacks, the seniors repay me by sharing stories about the unique lives they have led. 

I found Bartholomew House by looking for ways to contribute to my community and chose it due to its proximity to my house. Although I have connected with many seniors in the home, there are three whose stories impacted me greatly, inspiring me everyday.

Bert is an older gentleman who, when I met him, sat at a mahogany table in a fixed wheelchair that was too small for his long frame. The bruises on his hands and his defined, expressive face hinted at his fascinating past. 

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As I began to talk to him, he often rambled about aimless topics, which only intrigued me more. During our first few interactions, I would silently sit with Bert, attempting to start a conversation and understand who this man was. His daughter, Marie, would come in occasionally, telling me about Bert and his life. She said he grew up in the Bronx, which I had already figured out from his thick New York accent and baseball cap. She explained that he worked selling peanuts at the Yankee Stadium and fondly recalled how he would buy flower beds with baseball player Hank Greenberg to honor the troops during the war. 

I learned more about Bert’s life through his son, Henry. Bert had gotten a job at the World Trade Center in 1995 as the manager of the observation deck, quitting before 9/11 in 1999. The father and son would work together, with Henry giving speeches on the elevator about the World Trade Center as Bert managed the deck. 

All that I learned about Bert was through others. I got glimpses of his fascinating life, which only fuelled my curiosity to learn more about the stories of others. Eventually, Bert started beckoning me to sit beside him. I would sit next to him and read the sports section in the newspaper as he listened intently. He had become so familiar that it felt like he was family. Learning about Bert’s life taught me the value of attentiveness, motivating me to look past initial judgments to discover the rich narratives of seniors. 

I met Margaret the same week that I met Bert. Margaret is a kind, well-mannered woman who reminds me of my grandma. Conversation with her felt natural, and she was always positive. On my first day at the home, she spoke about growing up in East Hampton, Massachusetts, and described how she would recreationally fly the family plane as a teenager. She said she felt free in the sky and enjoyed being miles above solid ground. 

She didn’t talk about her past often, so when I finally did gain information, I was fascinated. As we watched a documentary about the space race during the 1960s, she mentioned that her family huddled around the TV when the first space shuttle blasted off. She envisioned herself on that shuttle, flying away from her small town and looking into space. When we sat in the garden together, she seemed full of spirit and life as she looked out over the green of the leaves and the bright sun reflecting in the pond. Few seniors were as grateful and content as she was. 

I returned to volunteer the following week and saw Margaret sitting alone on a bench in the garden. She greeted me politely, but when I sat beside her on the bench, she asked me, “Do you live here?”

The question confused me, as we talked so much last week, but it seemed she had forgotten me completely. I later realized she had dementia, and I made it a mission to see her every week so she would remember me.

After many weeks of coming to the home, she began to recognize me. Every time I returned, her face would light up when she saw me. Her broad and welcoming smile comforted me, and I admired her appreciative nature. She encouraged me to find the good in people, and her optimistic spirit continues to shape my perspective today.

I had noticed Maurice around the home after a few weeks of visits, but I wasn’t sure how to approach her. Maurice was a woman who seemed much more attentive and self-aware than the other seniors. She often diagnosed the needs of other seniors and explained how I could help them. Once I got to know her better, she opened up about her life. 

She first spoke about a backpacking trip in Sri Lanka, where she lived with her boyfriend for two years. She worked at an international school and loved the environment there, often going out hiking and trying new foods. During her time on the island, she and her boyfriend caught dengue fever and were sick for weeks. Despite this, she said she would love to go back someday and relive the memories of her youth.

Much of her life was spent in Nantucket, just off the coast of Cape Cod. She did jobs for wealthy families who lived in the area, such as cleaning houses, walking dogs and painting. She was a gifted artist who once painted the entire interior of a house with flowers and landscapes. I asked more about her artwork and glanced over at a painting lying on her walker. The painting portrayed a lone wooden boat sailing the seas in a disastrous storm. 

I was enchanted by her stories of living in Nantucket doing jobs for celebrities such as one of the Kennedys and the wife of the President of the Smithsonian. She gave me meaningful advice about taking risks and inspired me to live a life full of excitement. The stories of her travels made me want to explore the world and create long-lasting memories.

These were just a few stories I heard over six months of volunteering at the assisted living facility. Listening to these senior stories stirred my curiosity and compelled me to sit down and listen, providing me with new perspectives on life. Seniors are authentic — some are grateful, some are cynical, others are numb, but they all stay true to their beliefs. Their valuable stories can teach younger people to be attentive, ambitious and optimistic. Old-timers are often ignored, but their experiences can inspire young individuals to make their mark on the world.

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About the Contributor
Drake Poe, Opinion Writer
Grade 12 Why did you join The B&W? I wanted to become a better journalist and improve my writing capabilities. What is your favorite song? Piano Man by Billy Joel

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