On nearly every holiday, the recreation teams at Immanuel Lutheran Communities put on a show.  It’s important to these staff members that residents feel the days are truly special and different from ordinary days.  They do this by decorating hallways, throwing parties, and encouraging other staff to participate by wearing festive outfits.

Halloween is no different.  Soon, hallways and doorways will be decorated for the season.  There are parties on the calendars in all levels of living, and residents are invited to dress in costume for the day.  Staff members are also invited to dress up, and there will be prizes for funniest, most original, cutest, best homemade, and best overall.  This will be my third Halloween at Immanuel, and I can guarantee that it won’t feel like just another day.

This is great—the residents really enjoy the special activities, and staff like the change in their daily routines (and in the dress code!).  However, there’s a challenge inherent in planning holiday activities for seniors.  For many adults, Halloween in particular has always been a holiday centered around children.  For example, elementary school parties are common, while school-sponsored parties are more unusual for older children.  Trick-or-treating is (or, in this blogger’s opinion, should be) for kids.  After a certain age, many adults participate in Halloween festivities mostly through or with children.  Those that aren’t tend to be gory or alcohol-centered.  There’s a risk, then, that any Halloween celebration will look childish or otherwise be inappropriate for seniors.

But Halloween at Immanuel is definitely not childish.  It’s fun, and there’s candy (because no one outgrows a love of candy), but the parties do not involve children’s games.  Decorations and refreshments are thematic but tasteful.  More importantly, even on holidays like Halloween, regular activities continue.  Residents can still attend their usual fitness classes, and Wednesday-night trivia will take place as always.  Halloween certainly changes the nature of the day, but our recreation teams do a great job of making the day special without erasing all the other reasons that Wednesdays are special.

In a community like Immanuel, holidays like Halloween can also serve as chances to do things we enjoyed as children but don’t do much as adults (like dressing up for Halloween).  When having fun is the grownup thing to do, it’s easy for grownups to have fun.  So while it’s important to strike a balance between making holidays special and making them (for lack of a better analogy) too much like elementary school, it’s also important to not let a fear of “elementary-ness” get in the way of fun.  Our recreation staff does a beautiful job finding this balance.

In this post, I put on my cultural critic hat, and it’s a little (a lot) longer than usual.  So pop some popcorn, kick back, and enjoy a discussion of aging in popular culture!

For two or three years quite a while ago, the Fox crime show Bones was one of my favorites.  Early in my grad school days, a roommate and I happened across the premier—and got hooked.  Watching this somewhat silly, always somewhat gross, and yet somehow heartfelt (at least in those days) show became one of our weekly rituals.  We’d settle on the couch and observe FBI Agent Sealy Booth, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, and their team of scientists as they caught the Murderer of the Week.  Then we’d discuss (okay, nitpick) the show.  After I moved across the country to pursue further studies, I kept watching the show, albeit on my own.  At some point, though—I can’t remember exactly when—the silliness and the grossness overtook the heartfelt relationships between the characters and the compelling storylines, and I stopped watching.

All this is a long way of telling you that, thanks to the wonders of streaming video, I’ve been catching up on all the episodes of Bones I never saw.  I’m now on the final season, and two episodes jumped out at me because of their contrasting portrayals of aging.  I’m sorry to say that, at least in my opinion, Bones never regained its early charm.  Still, precisely because of its general frivolity, I think it’s a good idea to talk about how a show like Bones portrays aging.  In its final season, the show offers two quite different visions of growing older in America and, perhaps inadvertently, offers a fascinating comment on the options available to us as we age.

NOTE: Since this show finished airing about a year ago, I will be discussing the episodes in detail, including endings.  Also, this is a murder show, and very bad things happen to seniors.

The first episode I want to talk about actually aired second.  It’s called “The Scare in the Score” and was episode 7 in the season.  This episode builds to a dramatic climax centering on Booth and Brennan’s family (they’re married and have two kids by this point).  In the beginning, however, they set out to solve the murder of Margaret Kwan, an elderly woman whose body is found in the woods.  As they research the victim’s background, the team discovers that Margaret was a shut-in who lived entirely alone and had few contacts with the outside world.  In fact, her most meaningful relationship was with the delivery man who brought the items she ordered from the home shopping channel.  (He’s also the episode’s second victim and his murder sets in motion the main plot.)

The vision of aging in this episode is bleak indeed.  Margaret lives alone and has no family or friends except for her delivery man.  And to make matters worse, her death isn’t even the point.  It turns out that she was tortured and killed because the delivery man had information on Booth and Brennan that the murderer wanted, and hurting her was a way to get to him.  We don’t even know if it worked, because the delivery man was also tortured and killed and the episode never tells us whether he caved before Margaret died.  Plot holes aside, this is a distressingly instrumental but also poignant portrayal of an older adult’s death.  In the context of the story, Margaret’s death matters only in the sense that it leads the team to the delivery man, the “more important” victim whose death advances the series’ overall plot.  But whether or not the writers intended to do so, they made a point about aging.  Margaret’s death reminds us (in a very grizzly way) that many seniors live alone and that without connection, aging does indeed become a sad, lonely time of life.

The second episode I’ll discuss shows that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Season 12, Episode 3, “The New Tricks in the Old Dog,” is set in a retirement community.  So before I go on, I need to get my rant out of the way.  The show calls it a “retirement home.”  No one in the real-life industry calls it a “retirement home.”  It is a retirement community, or maybe a senior living community, or just, you know, apartments for older adults.  The point is that it’s a place where people go because they want to live around other people, not because they need to be put away, a point which the episode otherwise seems to recognize.  Also, the one and only non-director staff member who makes an appearance is called an “orderly,” which makes no sense.  None.  That’s a hospital word (I guess?  Do hospitals have orderlies anymore?).  This doesn’t seem to be an Assisted Living community, so what does this guy even do?  And why does he wear white scrubs?  Why didn’t the writers visit an actual retirement community to see what kind of staff they have?  I have so many questions about the orderly!

Ahem.  Anyway, the victim, James, is a resident of said retirement community.  Over the course of their investigation, Brennan and Booth discover that he had a romantic relationship with Barbara, one of the other residents.  She is wealthy, and it turns out that James and a third resident, Rufus, had a partnership in which they seduced wealthy women and scammed them out of their savings.  But James had fallen in love with Barbara, so much in love that he sold his osteoporosis medication online so he could buy her a wedding ring and hired a private investigator to find her long-lost daughter.  Rufus isn’t happy, but he’s not the murderer.  The murderer is yet another resident, a man named Red, an ex-serviceman who got very upset when he discovered that James had lied about being in the military.  He hit James with his cane and, because James hadn’t been taking his osteoporosis medication and was very vulnerable to blows, James died of his injuries even though Red did not intend to kill him.

“Homes” and “orderlies” aside, I thought this episode had some interesting things to say about aging in community.  For the most part, the residents weren’t played for laughs.  They were people who happened to be older, and they developed relationships with each other, good and bad, that were unique to their life stage but not shown to be weird or gross.  The characters’ bad actions are neither downplayed nor overemphasized because of their age, and age itself isn’t central to the murder.  Like so many murderers on this show, Red uses the weapon that’s closest to hand—which happens to be his cane.  Similarly, James sells osteoporosis medication because that’s what he has to sell.  And he sells it because he has fallen in love, highlighting how we continue to develop new bonds with each other even toward the ends of our lives.  His love for Barbara may have started out as a scam, but it turned into something real on both sides.  Unlike Margaret Kwan from “The Scare in the Score,” James is surrounded by friends who miss him, and viewers get the feeling that his death is more than a plot device—it’s important and sad because every premature death is important and sad.

Side by side, these two episodes of Bones show two extremes of aging.  Margaret has no connections and James has plenty of them.  Though I’m sure they wouldn’t put it this way, the writers of Bones offer in the last season what amounts to an advertisement for living in community as we age.  It’s interesting to find this in a show that isn’t about aging in any meaningful way, but I think it’s a good sign.  It’s important for all of us to think about what we want as we grow older and to consider how we as a society approach the growing number of older adults in our cities, states, and countries.  Pop culture can help us do that—even silly TV shows like Bones.

Virginia Hull loves to crochet.  The Immanuel Skilled Care Center resident always has a project in progress, and she frequently carries her yarn and hook with her.  On a couple of occasions, I’ve run into her just as she’s about to leave for or just getting home from a shopping trip to the hobby store to buy more yarn.

It’s a passion that goes back almost forty years.  Virginia began with fine thread crocheting (think doilies and tablecloths), and while she enjoyed it enough to keep up the hobby generally, she really wanted to make blankets, scarves, and other crafts typically created with heavier yarn.  The process is different enough from fine thread work that she took a night class in 1980 in Sidney, Montana, to help her make the transition.  Once she started this kind of crocheting, she didn’t stop.

Family has always been very important to Virginia.  Her parents emigrated from Greece and moved to Grand Junction, Colorado before she was born.  Her father was killed in a mining accident when she was a young child, but she was fortunate to have a very nice stepfather.  The family—including Virginia’s older brother and two younger half siblings—had a happy life in Grand Junction, where Virginia lived until she moved to Sidney for her husband’s job.  Virginia has two daughters as well as one son who sadly passed away as a young man.  “We had a lot of fun,” she recalls fondly when she talks about her children’s younger days.  And her children are the reason why she’s in Kalispell—she followed her daughter here after her daughter moved to be closer to her own children (Virginia’s grandchildren).

Family is also in the foreground of Virginia’s mind when she’s crocheting.  She took up the craft in earnest because she wanted to make blankets for her grandchildren when they graduated from high school.  Other projects include at least 2-3 blankets for each of her daughters as well as a king-size bedspread.  A lap blanket Virginia crocheted for her mother in her nursing-home days now hangs over the back of Virginia’s wheelchair, and Virginia’s work connects the two women even now.

On the day I spoke with Virginia, she was working on a red, white, and blue lap blanket.  She’s not sure exactly who it’s for yet, but it’s sure to find a home with someone who appreciates it.  It might be a little bit before it’s done, though—with the holidays approaching, Virginia has some other projects that have to take priority, so she’s going to be busy.  That’s okay; Virginia likes to be busy.  When I asked her what she likes about crocheting, she replied, “It’s relaxing, but it keeps me busy and keeps my mind working.”

The mischievous smile on Virginia’s face in her photo gives you a small glimpse of her engaging personality.  She was a pleasure to talk with, and I look forward to seeing more of her and her creations around campus.

On Thursday, October 11, the Immanuel Foundation will host our first public event.  We are inviting the community to join us at 5:30pm in the lobby of Buffalo Hill Terrace for drinks, heavy appetizers prepared by our marvelous dining team, and the unveiling of the Passions Project photos.  And we’re extra lucky because photographer Heidi Wagner will be present to discuss her creative process and the story behind the Passions Project.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve read quite a bit about the Passions Project by now.  We’re excited to share these photos.  Moreover, we’re excited to offer you a glimpse of the amazing, engaged seniors who live at Immanuel.  Whether they’re sharing their collections, walking beloved pets, or playing games, these residents continue to pursue the activities that bring them the most joy.

Immanuel Lutheran Communities participated in the Passions Project because we think it’s important to show our community how active and interesting residents remain.  That’s partly why the Foundation wanted to sponsor this project, of course.  We think it says a lot about the vision of aging we want to promote—one that’s active, engaged, and joyful rather than isolated and dull.

But the Foundation also chose to be part of this project because we want to show you who we raise money for.  All nineteen of the faces you’ll see at the Passions Project opening are Immanuel residents.  They live in all parts of community, from independent living to skilled nursing.  While some of them might need more philanthropic assistance than others, they are all real people engaged with their passions right here, in this community.  They all have stories.  Every single Immanuel resident has a lifetime of experience behind them, and every single one of them has something to share.  We’re hoping that The Passions Project will highlight some small part of the wisdom—and just plain interesting stories—housed in our community.

We’ve chosen to celebrate The Passions Project and the Foundation launch at the same time because both things are, in some ways, about celebrating the wonderful seniors who call Immanuel home.  The Passions Project celebrates them in obvious ways, by highlighting their skills, talents, and passions.  The Foundation celebrates them by seeking funds to make sure their lives remain as joyful and engaged as possible.  All of us, no matter our ages, need support to pursue our passions.  Immanuel wholeheartedly supports residents in living life in the ways that make them happiest.  The Foundation’s work helps make this support possible, and as we get our work off the ground, we look forward to learning more and sharing more about the people who live in our community.

So please join us on Thursday the 11th!  There’s still time to RSVP by clicking on the link below.