Sammy investigates her seventh

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a member of the Immanuel team you might not have met before.  Her name is Sammy, and she works mostly in the Lodge at Buffalo Hill and the Immanuel Skilled Care Center.  It’s safe to say that Sammy is the only member of the Immanuel team who’s been with us almost since she was born.  If you’re wondering how that’s possible, it’s because Sammy is a goldendoodle.  She turned seven last November, and she became part of the Immanuel family when some volunteers, led by Jim and Ron Pettis, purchased her for the organization when she was a newborn puppy.

I sat down with Tammy Miciewicz, recreation coordinator in the Lodge and Sammy’s chief handler, to talk more about the furriest member of the Immanuel team.  I learned that Sammy isn’t the first goldendoodle Immanuel’s had.  Before her, another goldendoodle, Fergie, had been part of the team.  Fergie was donated by a community member who couldn’t take care of her anymore.  When the first staff member who looked after her was no longer able to do so, the Miciewiczes took her home with them.  So, when Fergie passed away and it was time for a new dog, it was natural that Sammy would make her home with them.

Sammy was born in Missoula in 2011.  Immmanuel volunteers had noticed just how much of a difference Fergie made in the lives of residents in the Skilled Care Center so, when some time had passed after Fergie’s death, they urged Tammy and other recreation staff members to get a new dog.  When they saw that a litter of goldendoodle pups had been born in Missoula, they took initiative and went down to meet them.  The volunteers spent an entire day with the puppies, and Sammy was the one they felt had the best personality to work with residents.  When they picked her up, they also brought her favorite blue bone toy.  Tammy tells me it had belonged to the entire litter of puppies, but the volunteers noticed how much Sammy loved it, and they wanted to be sure she had it with her.  They met Tammy in the Murdoch’s parking lot in Kalispell, and from that point on, Sammy had two homes: Immanuel and the Miciewiczes’.

At first, Sammy worked almost exclusively at the Skilled Care Center, including in the Bratsberg Dementia Unit (Tammy is a memory support specialist).  These days, she spends most of her time with residents at the Lodge, Immanuel’s Assisted Living Memory Support community.  She is an integral part of life there and is particularly good at calming residents who are having a difficult time.  Sometimes petting a dog helps an emotional resident calm down.  She provides a sense of safety and familiarity.

When she’s in the common spaces, Sammy goes from resident to resident, putting her head in each person’s lap in turn.  The residents pet her and play with her ears, and Tammy notices that Sammy knows who likes her best and goes to them more often.  She’s also good at getting the less responsive or social residents up and about.  When Sammy goes into a resident’s room and engages with them there, they’ll often follow her out to the common spaces.  Even if the resident just hovers at the edge of an activity and doesn’t really participate, it’s good for them to get out of their room, and Sammy seems to know it. 

On her twice-weekly excursions to the Immanuel Skilled Care Center, Sammy plays much the same comfort and support role as she does at the Lodge.  What I’ve noticed about her is that she always knows she has a job to do.  While she’s generally a friendly dog who wants to stop and say hi to everyone, she knows she needs to get back to the residents.  Even when she goes outside, she doesn’t linger.  The residents are her main concern.

According to Tammy, Sammy takes a two-hour nap every day when she gets home from work.  Then, she likes to run around the yard.  While she isn’t fond of most toys, she still likes to play with the blue bone she brought with her from Missoula.  Sometimes she’ll hide it or bury it—but she always finds it again.  All in all, Sammy is a mellow dog who knows what her job is, and we’re lucky to have her here at Immanuel!

On a recent trip to New York City, I had the opportunity to see Jez Butterworth’s 2018 play The Ferryman.  The show has been a hit both in London and on Broadway, and it’s garnered numerous awards and nominations for both the writing and the incredible (and huge—20 actors) cast.  Because of where I work, one of the things that stuck out to me was how intergenerational the cast is.  The oldest characters are in their eighties while the youngest is about six months old.  As the past and the present converge in The Ferryman, the play’s three oldest characters all attempt to lead their younger relatives toward a better future.  The play is notable for its deployment of older characters for both plot and thematic purposes, and I’d like to think through what it’s trying to do with them.

There’s a lot to unpack The Ferryman, and I’m not going to attempt it all here.  But there’s a little bit of background that’s helpful for understanding its treatment of aging.  The play is set in the midst of the Troubles, the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between Unionists who want the North to become part of the Republic of Ireland and Loyalists who want it to remain part of the United Kingdom.*  During this period, the provisional Irish Republican Army carried out numerous attacks, and the British police and military struck back hard.  The Ferryman takes place in 1981, in the immediate aftermath of the hunger strikes in which ten Irish republican inmates died in a futile attempt to have themselves declared political prisoners.  Tensions in Northern Ireland were running very high, and the long history of conflict between British forces and Irish people desiring independence was very much at the front of everyone’s mind.

The play’s three oldest characters represent this long history.  Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat (yes, really, they’re both called Pat), and Aunt Maggie Faraway have seen much of it, and they insist on placing the play’s present events in historical context.  The three characters have different approaches to history, memory, and the future, and their attempts to share it have direct impacts on events in the play. 

Before I go any further, I want to clarify how all of these characters are related to each other.  At the center of the play are former IRA operative Quinn Carney, his wife Mary, and his sister-in-law Caitlin, the wife of his brother Seamus, who was killed by fellow IRA members in 1972.  Seamus’s body has just been found in a bog, and that’s the impetus for the action in The Ferryman.  Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat, and Aunt Maggie Faraway are all siblings of Quinn and Seamus’s deceased father, Big Jack.  Rounding out the family are Quinn and Mary’s seven children, ranging in age from late teens to young baby, and Caitlin’s teenage son Oisin.  There are also three cousins from Belfast who come down to help with the harvest, a priest, three IRA men, and a mentally disabled Englishman who lives nearby.

Uncle Pat is the least controversial and the most peaceful of the three elders.  He’s a scholar at heart, and during the play, he’s rereading the ancient Roman poet Virgil.  For Uncle Pat, the violence of the Troubles is a complete waste.  He wants peace, and most of all, he wants no more of his family members to die.  Since we learn later from Aunt Pat that one of their siblings was killed in the failed Easter Rising of 1916 and his nephew’s body has just been discovered, it’s not surprising that Uncle Pat simply wants the carnage to stop.  He certainly doesn’t support forgetting the past, but he doesn’t want to keep fighting its battles.  For him, remembering the past means learning from it and moving on.

Aunt Pat is the play’s firebrand.  She does want to keep fighting the battles of the past and in fact insists on it.  Early in the play, Aunt Pat carries a radio around with her and is determined to make her younger family members listen to the speech in which Thatcher formally announces that she will not declare the hunger strikers to be political prisoners.  Since the family is trying to get ready for the harvest (they are farmers), the intrusion of politics is extremely unwelcome.  Aunt Pat’s insistence on rehashing the past, and on telling the story of how she followed her beloved older brother to Dublin for the 1916 Rising only to have him die in her arms, forces the family to confront history.  For Aunt Pat, the Troubles in 1981 are part of a struggle that goes back to her young adulthood, and Seamus’s death is a result of the same conflict as her brother’s.   Because Aunt Pat discloses that she kept her brother’s pistol, this confrontation with history eventually leads to tragic consequences in the present.

The third and final elder, Aunt Maggie Faraway, has a different relationship altogether with the past.  Aunt Maggie is suffering from dementia, so she only remembers the past occasionally in, it has to be said, convenient moments.  Aunt Maggie spends much of the play sitting silently off to the side in her wheelchair, but in her lucid moments, she shares both stories of the past and prophecies for the future.  She tells one of her four great-nieces that she’ll have nine children but refuses to answer the same child’s question about whether her father is a murderer.  If Quinn wasn’t a murderer at the time young Honor asks this question, he is by the end of the play, so Aunt Maggie could be refusing in this moment to tell either the past or the future.

At the heart of Aunt Maggie’s few reminiscences and prophecies lies the idea that without intervention, the past and the future will be very similar.  And indeed, after the dramatic climax, Aunt Maggie gets the last word.  Her ambiguous final declaration is, “They are coming…  They are coming…”  “They” might be the banshees, the UK police, or the IRA.  The audience doesn’t really know.  We only know that the Carney family has not been able to overcome the demons of their past.  Quinn has committed murder, and though the men he kills are pretty awful and he kills them in defense of his family, there will certainly be consequences.  He will at best go to jail and could be killed, and his children will know for sure that their father is a murderer.  And one member of the youngest generation is dead because he could not resist his cousins’ goading or the lure of Aunt Pat’s republican pistol.

The lesson The Ferryman teaches through its elder generation is not a generalized “we must learn from the past in order to go forward into the future.”  Taken together, Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat, and Aunt Maggie Faraway tell us that we have to be very, very careful about what lessons we take from the past.  The character who most takes to heart Aunt Pat’s lesson—that Ireland must fight until it’s a united, independent republic—winds up tragically dead.  Uncle Pat’s calls to look to the ancients instead of to the 1916 rebels go all but unheeded.  In the end, it’s Aunt Maggie’s lesson that looking to the past for the future is dangerous that plays out on stage.  “They are coming,” and all the Carneys can do is wait.

There’s one more thing I want to note about The Ferryman’s older characters: they’re all played by aging actors—or at least, actors who are aging by stage standards.  At 66, Fred Applegate, who plays Uncle Pat, is the youngest of three.  Ann McDonough (Aunt Pat) is 69, and the incomparable Fionnula Flanagan (Aunt Maggie Faraway) is 77.  There aren’t a lot of great roles for actors who have reached those points in their lives, especially for women, but Butterworth has provided three pretty juicy ones.  I felt especially privileged to see Flanagan, who made a role that could have been faintly comic into something very powerful.  Butterworth’s and Director Sam Medes’s appreciation of what older actors bring has a lot to do with this, of course.   Though none of these three is the lead, they all have a lot to do with how the plot plays out, and I was delighted to see seniors play such key roles.

*The Irish Studies scholar in me would be remiss if I did not mention here that the Troubles have their roots much farther back in Irish history than decades.  You might even say that they began in the twelfth century, when Henry II invaded Ireland.  The British were always a colonial power in Ireland, and there’s never really been a time in Irish history when nationalists/unionists/republicans weren’t trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to throw them out.  However, the Troubles are usually understood to have lasted from the formation of the modern Ulster Volunteer Force in 1966 through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.  I also want to note that polling indicates that a majority—though sometimes a slim one—of Northern Irish want their country to remain part of the UK.

Carla Wilton, Executive Director, Buffalo Hill Terrace

Communities like Immanuel offer an option for seniors who either want to live in community or can no longer take care of themselves in the way they’d like.  But there are thousands of seniors across the Flathead Valley and even more across the United States who prefer to stay at home, and that means a lot of family members end up caring for their aging spouses, parents, and other loved ones.  Most family members are happy to provide this care.  However, many have very little training and sometimes, they don’t get the support they need to offer care to their loved one and take care of themselves in the process.

According to the Eldercare Workforce Alliance, “Family caregivers need more recognition, training, and support in order to provide high-quality care to their loved ones and maintain their own health and well-being.”  Immanuel tackles this problem head-on.  Because we want to be a resource for all seniors in our valley, not just those who live here, we regularly run a Caregiver Education class for anyone interested in gaining more knowledge about and support for looking after a loved one.  Right now, Carla Wilton, the Executive Director of Buffalo Hill Terrace, is offering her class on local radio station KGEZ.  There are two sessions left, and you can hear them on Wednesdays at 12:45pm.  To listen to previously-recorded broadcasts, go here.

I talked with Carla about what she thinks are the most pressing challenges for caregivers and about what you can do to help make both your and your loved one’s lives run as smoothly as possible.  The biggest challenge, Carla says, is that family caregivers often feel strong emotional attachment to the person they’re caring for.  While those of us who work in senior living care about the residents we serve, we don’t have anything like the level of personal attachment felt by a spouse or child.  This emotional attachment means not only that caregivers struggle with seeing their loved one in pain but also that it can be hard to make choices the care receiver doesn’t like, even when the caregiver knows it’s best.

And emotional attachments aren’t always simple—or positive.  If a person is caring for someone with whom they have negative history or unresolved conflict, caregiving can be very difficult indeed.  Family members might care for each other out of obligation rather than genuine desire, and in these cases caregivers have a lot of emotions to work through.

Even where relationships are positive, people in a caregiving relationship have a different kind of intimacy than they previously had.  Caregiving is also a role change, and in some cases, such as a child caring for a parent, it’s an outright role reversal.  And the caregiver might be taking on other roles they’ve never done before, like paying bills or making sure housework or yardwork gets done.  Since the care receiver can already feel powerless because of their health situation, the caregiver has to negotiate both their own emotions and those of the person they’re caring for.

Of course, this is a lot to handle, and Carla notes that it’s natural for caregivers to feel overwhelmed.  It’s more than okay to ask for help—in fact, it’s vital.  Because caregivers are often very competent people who appear to have everything together (many times, that’s why they end up with the caregiving role!), others won’t necessarily see that they need help.  So, if you’re a caregiver who needs assistance, you’ll probably have to ask.  Carla recommends starting by making a list of the things you need.  Then, identify people in your existing network who might be able to help with those things.  Family, friends, and faith communities are all great places to start.  For example, if you need someone to stay with the person you’re caring for while you run errands or just have some time to yourself, you might set up regular times when a friend can both visit your loved one and give you a break.  Or, if lawn maintenance is what you need, you might have a relative who has the tools and skills to help you with that.  It’s a matter of figuring out what you need and whom you know who might be able to fill that need.  Often, family and friends really want to help, so if you ask, chances are they’ll say yes.

Of course, your network may not be able to fill all of your needs, so the next step is to figure out where else you should look for help.  In the Flathead Valley, the Area IX Agency on Aging is a great resource.  They provide some respite care resources, and they can help direct you to additional paid providers.  You can also check the United Way Answer Book—a document full of resources for all kinds of situations in which local residents find themselves.  And Immanuel can help too.  Even if our services aren’t right for your family, our staff is happy to help direct you to others who can help.  We care about all area seniors, and we want caregivers to have the support they need.

Villas resident Mark Norley is native Montanan, and his life’s journey has taken him far away and back again.  He was born and grew up in Conrad.  As a child, Mark loved to draw, and he was always trying draw cartoons.

Mark received his Bachelor’s degree in design from Montana State University, where he deliberately chose to pursue a degree in art over agriculture because of his longtime love of drawing.  After college, he spent four years in the US Airforce, and then he moved to California, where he lived for most of his career.  His first job in California was in a high-end department store where he designed window and interior displays.  Eventually, Mark became the display manager.  While Mark enjoyed the department store work, he knew he ultimately wanted something different, so he returned to Montana, this time to the University of Montana, where he obtained a lifetime teaching credential. 

Once certified, Mark received a job offer from a junior high school in California, and he taught art there for some years.  At the same time, he returned to school once again, this time for a Master’s of Design at UCLA.  After a few years teaching at the junior high and college levels, the principal of the junior high offered Mark a position teaching at the 3,000-student high school where he (the principal) had just accepted a position.  Mark jumped at the chance to help build the largest high school art department in the state of California.  At the time he retired, they had eight full-time faculty.  Mark has particularly fond memories of his last year teaching there, as he was able to make it an extra-good year by using all the stored-up supplies he had accumulated throughout his career.

In addition to being an art teacher and practicing artist, Mark has always had an interest in architecture.  When he lived in California, he met the founder of the California Historic Preservation Society.  He admired this man’s historic house so much he eventually ended up buying it!

During the summers, Mark engaged in his other passion: travel.  Every summer, he came back to Montana.  Often, he stayed with a friend who had a cabin at Lake McDonald.  He also traveled around the United States and abroad.  Sometimes Christmas breaks, too, were spent at various locations around the globe.

But no matter where he went, Mark always saw Montana as home.  “It was inevitable to come back to Montana,” he said during his Passions Project interview.  He game back upon his retirement from teaching, and his goal was to find someplace to live and a studio to paint in.  Mark never did find that studio, but he did find a lovely house near Woodland Park, where he lived for many years.

Now that he’s retired, Mark invests a lot of time in Flathead Valley civic life, especially in its artistic, design, and historic preservation communities.  He is the chairman of the city’s Architectural Review Committee, and he is always trying to convince applicants to buy and plant evergreens around their new buildings.  He also is currently or has been involved as a board member and volunteer with the Hockaday Museum of Art, the Conrad Mansion, and the Museum at Central School. In spite of never having found the perfect studio, Mark has continued to paint in his preferred medium of watercolor, though a hand injury prevents him from doing it as much as he might like to.  Since moving to Kalispell about 25 years ago, he has exhibited at the Hockaday, among other venues.  He continues to enjoy looking at art, whether as a judge in the Waterton/Glacier art show or simply as a viewer.  Mark’s favorite painters are the California Impressionists, and he also appreciates the work of his former teacher, the Abstract Expressionist Sam Francis.  When asked to sum up his view on painting, Mark says, “It’s sometimes relaxing and sometimes really fun, but it’s hard work.”

One of the things I get to do in my job at Immanuel is lead the resident Book Club at Buffalo Hill Terrace.  We meet once a month to discuss a book, and we’ve read everything from historical fiction to murder mysteries to nonfiction.  I love this for a lot of reasons.  First, I love books, so having literature as part of my job is pretty nice for me.  Second, I get to share some of my favorite books and writers with a great group of people, and they share theirs with me, so there’s quite an exchange of idea and possibilities.  These are the standard, expected benefits of a book club with any group of people.

When one leads a book club mostly comprised of seniors, though, something else cool happens: I get to hear lots of stories about life in the past.  That was especially true at our meeting last week, less because of the book we just read than because of the book we’re getting ready to read.  As you may know, the 19th amendment, guaranteeing women in the United States the right to vote, passed Congress in 1919 (and was ratified by a sufficient number of states in 1920).  To celebrate the centennial anniversary of this landmark occasion, the Buffalo Hill Terrace Book Club is reading Elaine Weiss’s new book The Woman’s Hour (if you’re intrigued by the link, don’t forget to shop at your Immanuel-linked Amazon Smile account!).  March is Women’s History Month, so it seemed like the perfect time to read about and consider this key occasion in women’s history.

As we talked about our upcoming read, I provided some additional background on the early women’s suffrage movement, as it’s a subject I’m very familiar with from my academic research.  It took seventy-two years from the first US women’s right convention in Seneca Falls, New York to the ratification of the 19th amendment.  This was news to some of the book club members, but when they thought it through, they quickly connected the challenge experienced by the suffragists with challenges they faced in their own lives.

The Terrace Book Club is comprised of wonderful, articulate, smart, formally- and informally-educated women (men are welcome, but none have ever come).  They spend a lot of time connecting books to their lives.  This is particularly interesting and welcome in cases of historical fiction, when their life experience often means they can identify with the books we read in ways I can’t.  During our conversation this past Friday, I learned that one club member had been “clerical-tracked” in high school simply because she was a girl, in spite of her academic suitability for a college track.  Another talked about how she, a professional in a academic department, had been asked to make coffee and take meeting minutes even though she didn’t have a secretarial role.

While the book club members have always been able to vote, their mothers were among the first generation of American women to be able to do so in national elections.  The women in the book club are therefore very much aware of how much has changed in the world since their mothers were children—or even since they were young adults themselves.  They are able to put present-day issues in long-term perspective, and they appreciate history because they have lived more of it than those of us who are younger.

At Immanuel, we value the life experience all of our residents bring, and we want everyone in our community to have a chance to benefit from their wisdom the way those of us who work here do.  Your gifts help us do that.  Thank you.