This week, many kids in the Flathead Valley went back to school.  The rest will return next week, ready for a new year of learning and fun.  For me, it’s my third year of not going back to school, which is interesting.  Every year from the time I began Kindergarten at age five until three years ago, I went back to school in some capacity.  These days, I am neither a student nor an educator, but late summer and early fall still get me thinking about goal setting and renewal.

Obviously, I’m someone who believes in education (otherwise I wouldn’t have so much of it!).  But education looks different at different points in our lives.  When we’re kids, going to school is about learning the basics of we need to become successful adults.  As we grow up, we pursue additional education to gain skills and knowledge for our jobs and, if we’re lucky, to learn more about things we love.

If we’re even luckier, what we learn about the things we love applies directly to our jobs.  That’s how it is for many of the employees here at Immanuel who are joining their children in going back to school this fall.  In my last post, I shared with you some information about the Employee Education Fund, which allows some of our staff members to go back to school to gain additional credentials that will improve their lives.  Many of them have set goals of obtaining degrees and then higher-paying jobs.  Others simply want to learn things that will help them do their current jobs better.  I am impressed by both; it takes a lot of effort and dedication to continue one’s education while also working.  People who do this usually do it because they want to advance in their jobs, but they wouldn’t make the effort if they didn’t love those jobs and believe in the importance of doing them well.

As I think about what I want to accomplish over the coming nine months, I think a lot about how I, as a Foundation staff member, can help support my fellow staff members who are going back to school.  One thing I can do is work on raising money for the Education Fund.  I’m also working on raising funds to restart our on-site CNA class, which has helped numerous Flathead Valley residents gain a credential that helps them earn more money, at no charge to them.

Learning doesn’t stop just because we leave school.  I’ve learned a lot in my years at Immanuel, and most of it didn’t involve a classroom or someone called an “instructor.”  Sure, I’ve taken a few training courses to help me excel in elements of my job I wanted to get better at, but most of what I’ve learned has come from residents and fellow staff members.  They’ve taught me about patience, about overcoming obstacles, and about how powerful small, kind words can be.  I am proud to help those fellow staff members continue learning in whatever form works best for them, and I hope you’ll join me in these efforts.

Immanuel Lutheran Communities couldn’t run without its staff.  This seems like an obvious statement.  But we don’t want it to leave it at that; we want to recognize the people who go out of their way to make seniors’ lives better.  And we want to do it by making their lives better.

Our community is full of women and men who work hard, every day, to make Immanuel a wonderful place to live.  Everyone from housekeepers to nursing assistants to dining room servers knows the residents, their needs, and their preferences.  Just yesterday I got to eat lunch with my grandfather in the Claremont Restaurant, and I was delighted (though not surprised) to observe just how much Rachel, our server, knows about his preferences.  He didn’t even have to ask for his hot chocolate or his black cherry frozen yogurt.  She knew what he would want, confirmed it, and brought it.

I am telling you this story because it shows the small ways in which our staff members work to make our residents feel special, and it shows how special our staff members are.  We recognize the contributions these special people make partly by helping them pay for school.

Like all retirement communities, Immanuel relies on a large contingent of lower-paid staff, including CNAs, housekeepers, and maintenance technicians as well as servers like Rachel.  Many of these employees would like to grow in their professional lives, so the opportunity to get some help paying for education helps them make the changes they want to make.  Money from the Employee Education Fund has helped CNAs to become LPNs, LPNs to become RNs, employees in other departments to gain credentials in a wide variety of fields.  Many of them choose to stay and work at Immanuel, and they continue to provide superb customer service and care to the residents who call this community home.

Lately, so many employees have chosen to apply for education funding that we are not able to fund all requests at full capacity.  We would like to help our employees more, and to that, we need help from you.  By designating your gift to the employee education fund, you can make a difference in the lives of those who make a difference to our residents every day.

I have something to confess.  I was an English major.  (Oh no!  You gasp.  Everyone knows humanities majors are weird.  I guess since you’re the grant writer it’s okay?)  But, it’s even worse than that.  I went to grad school in English and I hold a Ph.D.  I even taught for a few years after finishing.  In the midst of a career change like this, it’s easy to think that none of what I learned in all those years of education will be useful.  But I often find myself making connections between some of the most abstract topics I’ve studied and day-to-day life in a retirement community.

One of the most striking of these connections has to do with structural linguistics as outlined by French philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure.  Structuralism actually has a lot of applications to everyday life (just trust me), but the one that’s been on my mind lately has to do with dementia.  For a lot of reasons, dementia is difficult and scary for the person experiencing it and the people observing the change.  One day awhile back a colleague told me about a resident who, at dinner time, tried to eat her soup with her fork instead of her spoon.   At first, I thought this was just sad and frankly kind of weird; after all, the resident remembered that utensils are for eating.  But then I started thinking about this story using a structuralist lens.  My fellow English majors—at least those who studied theory—are probably nodding their heads, but the rest of you might be wondering what on earth I’m talking about.  That’s okay.  If you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain—and then, I promise, I’ll also explain what it has to do with dementia.

Saussurian structural linguistics posits that language is composed of signs.  To simplify radically, a sign is a word.  But in structural linguistics, a word is more than a collection of letters.  Signs consist of both the collection of letters (say, “chair”) and the concept behind the collection of letters (so, a thing used primarily for sitting on, with four legs, a seat, and probably a back).  Saussure called these two parts the “signifier” and the “signified.”  Every sign is comprised of both a signifier and a signified, and the two parts are inseparable (try thinking of a chair without thinking of the sounds and letters c-h-a-i-r; you almost certainly can’t).  We understand each other when we talk because we all agree on which signifiers match which signifieds.  Because signs aren’t just words, we also know what to do when we encounter their physical manifestation; we sit in chairs.

Saussure also described the concept of sign systems.  All languages are sign systems, and there are sign systems that aren’t languages.  In systems, signs are arbitrary and relational.  Which is to say, there’s no reason why c-h-a-i-r is a thing we sit on accept that it always has been.  Also, we understand chairs in relation to tables, stools, couches, and other items in the general sign system “furniture.”  Chairs are different from all of these other things, and we know what chairs are for, and therefore what the sign “chair” means, in no small part because we understand how they are different from other things.

You might well ask, “What does all this have to do with a resident eating soup with a fork?”.  Well, the resident still understood the sign system “utensils.”  What she didn’t understand was the specific sign “spoon” and how it differs from “fork.”  As dementia progresses, we lose our understanding of specific signs before we lose our understanding of sign systems.  In this instance, academic theory I studied in the past helped me make sense out a confusing event in my present.  Structuralism is a way of understanding language and our relationship to it, and it can also help us understand the process we undergo when our understanding of language breaks down.

I had the pleasure of spending much of last week with photographer Heidi Wagner.  Heidi’s photo series The Passions Project aims to change the face of aging by highlighting all the positive, productive ways in which seniors spend their time.  We were excited to have her on campus, and we can’t wait to see the photos she took of Immanuel residents during our 20 sessions.

One of the best things about the week was that I got to learn more about some of the residents here at Immanuel.  Over the course of the week, I talked with a three painters, two pianists, a woodcarver, a restorer of classic cars, and a stamp collector, among many others.

Some of the residents my colleagues and I talked with continue to pursue their passions as avidly as they ever did.  The philatelist, for example, keeps adding new stamps to her album and attends monthly meetings of the local stamp club.  For others, it’s gotten hard or even impossible to do everything they used to.  The restorer of classic cars no longer has either the physical capacity or the appropriate workspace to continue his work, and the woodcarver has developed a health condition that makes it unsafe for him to use sharp blades.  But that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their passions.  Their eyes still light up when they talk about these activities, and they’re still able to share the knowledge they gained over years of pursuing them.

I’ll admit, it was a busy and somewhat draining week.  After three to five interviews and photo shoots, I certainly went home every evening ready to put my feet up!  But it was fun to talk to people about their passions, and I learned so much about residents I’ve known in some cases for a couple of years.  I also made some amazing new acquaintances and learned about what they love—and, in some cases, about their personal histories.

I’m excited to share with you some of what I learned last week about twenty remarkable individuals. Once we have the photos, I’ll share some of those, too.  What The Passions Project shows is that we don’t have to stop pursuing our passions as we age, and that passions don’t stop being passions just because we can’t engage in them in the ways we once did.

If you’d like to see The Passions Project photos in person, don’t forget to mark your calendar for the opening reception at 5:30pm on Thursday, October 11 at Buffalo Hill Terrace.

From hiking to painting to writing to spending time with pets, we all have things we love to do.  When asked how we want to spend our time when we retire, I think most of us would say that we want to be doing the things we love most and spending time with the people we love most.

However, there seems to be a perception out there that as we age, we stop doing the things we love, and that maybe we even stop loving the things we used to.  While it’s true that our interests and abilities change, we can continue to find joy in the things we’re passionate about—and we can even develop new passions.

This year, Immanuel Lutheran Communities is participating in The Passions Project, a photo series showcasing seniors pursuing their passions.  We’ve selected twenty residents to be photographed, and we’ll use these photos around campus and, we hope, around town.  We want to change the face of aging in the Flathead Valley.

As you learn more about the Passions Project in the coming weeks, I encourage you to think about what you want to be doing in the latter years of your life.  Will you hike more?  Read more books?  Travel the world?  Or maybe, like some the Passions Project featured residents, you’ll discover a new passion!