A few weeks ago, I talked about the Immanuel Spirit, the set of guidelines we all try to live and work by here at Immanuel.  Today, I want to take a deeper dive into one of these guidelines.  It’s the first on the list, and one of the most challenging to abide by: “Embrace and value our differences, while assuming positive intentions.”

There’s a lot packed in to these two clauses.  In the first one, we agree not only recognize the differences between ourselves and others but also to embrace and value them.  It can be very difficult to genuinely embrace the differences between ourselves and others; after all, most of us approach things the way we do because those ways make sense to us.  When someone approaches something from a different angle, it’s easy to see their way as wrong.  When we embrace and value our differences, however, we recognize that it can sometimes be helpful to take into account multiple points of view.

The second part of this statement can be even more difficult to live by.  When we “assume positive intentions,” we approach interactions with the assumption that the other person wants a good outcome, just as we do.  When we disagree with the people around us, we do our best to assume that they (like us) want the best for the team, the residents, and the organization.

When we feel passionately about our work, it can be hard to adhere to this guideline (because most of us have good reasons for how we approach things!), but when we do, our work lives are generally more pleasant and productive.  Most of the time people genuinely are coming from a positive place, so even when we at first don’t agree, we can trust that we all have the same end goals.  The residents really do come first here at Immanuel.

When we embrace and value our differences while assuming positive attentions, we find compromise solutions when we disagree about the best way to approach a problem.  We also have better working relationships because we’re not focused on being right all the time.  It’s often hard to do, but it’s almost always worth it!

If you’re ever at Buffalo Terrace and looking for Marvin Schultz, you can often find him in the Patio Room or Wooden Nickel playing games with his friends.  Marvin has long enjoyed games of all kinds.  I know this first-hand because I’ve known him all my life—he’s my Grandpa.

Marvin moved in to Buffalo Hill Terrace almost two years ago.  As soon as he moved in, he found a group of friends with whom he regularly plays his favorite card game, Hand and Foot.  And if you walk in the North Entrance and see a group of people playing a dice game called Farkle in the Café, that’s probably our family.  Marvin can and will play almost any game—board games, card games, dice games, games of chance, games of strategy—that others want to play.  No matter whom he’s playing with, he takes a relaxed approach.  “To me games should be fun and relaxing,” he comments.  “If you get all uptight about losing, don’t play.”

Family has always been central to Marvin’s love of games.  When he was growing up, he played games with his mother, Hilda, and his whole family of four would play canasta at Christmas time. His Passions Project photo shows him playing chess, one of his favorites.  His older brother, Merlyn, taught him to play the game and was his most common opponent when they were growing up.    Eventually, Marvin got good enough that he could beat Merlyn at a game or two, but it didn’t happen often!

That was okay, though, because winning has never been what Marvin likes most about playing chess.  He enjoys formulating a strategy, including a plan of attack and a defense at the same time.  He doesn’t memorize move sequences the way some players do.  Instead, he takes it one move a time—and one game at a time.  “Every game’s different to me,” he says. “It depends on what your opponent does.”

Marvin was born in Wisconsin and, when he was growing up, his family lived in a variety of states including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Texas.  After graduating with his engineering degree, Marvin took a job at Boeing and moved to Wichita, Kansas.  He soon met Shirley, the love of his life.  The couple dated for one summer.  Then, Shirley went back to college.  While she was away, he wrote her one letter.  It must have been a good letter, because they became engaged almost as soon as she came back to Wichita the next summer and married that August.  They went on to have six children (one passed away as a young child), three of whom now live in Northwest Montana.

Marvin moved to Kalispell in 2013 to live with his second daughter, Carla (I call her Mom).  In 2017, he moved into Buffalo Hill Terrace.  He loves living here, where he has a lot of friends and game-playing buddies.  And next week, his two children who don’t live nearby will be coming to visit along with their spouses and some of their kids (Marvin’s grandkids, my cousins).  I know he’s looking forward to it, and I’m sure we’ll be playing some games! 

When prospective residents or other newcomers visit Immanuel, they often remark on what a positive environment they find.  Many of them have remarked that “it just feels different” from other communities or workplaces.  That difference usually has to do with the way staff members interact with each other and with residents.  People say to hi to each other in the halls, often calling each other by name and sometimes stopping for a brief exchange about how the day is going.  Residents gather in the Patio Room for coffee and games or just for a chat before dinner.  Floor staff are busy, but they always appear to enjoy each other’s company when they’re working in teams, and they take the time to greet passersby.

At Immanuel, we emphasize “community,” and that’s part of what creates this atmosphere.  But we also strive every day to live and work the values described in the Immanuel Spirit.  The Immanuel Spirit was developed by leadership several years ago to structure the culture we want to create here at Immanuel.  For example, the Immanuel Spirit reminds us to “Greet everyone warmly, by name, and with a smile” and to “Contribute to an atmosphere of positivity, teamwork, and cultural support.”  It’s these values that are reflected in the exchanges visitors notice.

But these values aren’t just for show.  They shine through in other areas, as well.  For example, recently our culinary team was preparing a meal from a specific ethnic tradition for some visiting VIPs.  A housekeeper with experience preparing this kind of ethnic cuisine happened to wander through the kitchen.  She noticed that something wasn’t quite right, and she jumped in to help.  A little bit later, she returned to the kitchen when her assistance was requested.  This housekeeper isn’t on the culinary team, of course, and she still had housekeeping work to finish, but because teamwork is so important at Immanuel, she stopped what she was doing to make sure that a big event turned out as well as it possibly could.  She saw a problem she could help solve and jumped in—incidentally, another of the Immanuel Spirit commitments is “Respond to every problem I see.”

It’s not always easy to honor all fifteen points of the Immanuel Spirit, but when we keep them in mind, we create a culture that is welcoming and special.  We strive to work as a team across departments, and when we do, residents and guests notice.

At the Immanuel Foundation, we are privileged to work with a wonderful Resident Advisory Committee.  This group, composed of five active, engaged residents of Buffalo Hill Terrace and The Villas, gives us their input on our fundraising strategies and priorities.  They know the “buzz” around the community, and they’re willing to share it.  Since we fundraise for the community, it’s important to us that we understand residents’ priorities.  Our committee members share information about what residents are thinking and what’s important to them, and they’re great ambassadors for the work we do in the Foundation.

Our committee members are also great at helping out with practical tasks.  They’ve helped us stuff mailings, prepare for events, staff tables, and of course they were a huge help at our Estate Sale last May.  They’ve become an integral part of the Immanuel Foundation, and at this point we probably couldn’t do the work we do without them.

Our committee is not the only one at Immanuel.  The Foundation committee is part of a larger system at Buffalo Hill Terrace and the Villas that engages residents with operations.  After all, this community is their home, so they should have a voice in how things are run.  To help make their voices heard, the Buffalo Hill Terrace administration established committees for dining, recreation, finance, and the physical building.  There’s also a group of Resident Ambassadors that helps show new residents around, provides tours for prospective residents, and makes their apartment homes available for viewing.  Representatives from all of these individual committees, as well as the Foundation Committee, come together monthly to share updates and help Carla Wilton, the Buffalo Hill Terrace Executive Director, make decisions that impact residents.

These committees are great for everybody.  They’re great for staff because we get direct impact from residents.  They’re great for residents because they have a voice in how the organization runs.  And they’re great for the organization as a whole because we can be sure we’re responding to the people for whom we exist in the first place.

Like all retirement communities, Buffalo Hill Terrace has a wealth of experience and expertise within its walls.  These committees also give the residents a chance to go on using their talents and skills in a way that benefits their community.  They are retired, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their skills or their interests.  So, residents with finance backgrounds join the finance committee, those with a background or particular interest in food service join the dining committee, etc.  In the Foundation, we benefit from residents on our committee with long histories of volunteering and board service for a wide variety of organizations.

By participating in the governance and oversight of the organization, residents remain engaged with their community and their world.  And Immanuel finds ways to provide even better service that’s tailored to the particular group of people who live here.  Thank you so much to all of the residents who offer their time on the committees—you help keep the community great!

On the door of Shirley Pryor’s room at the Immanuel Skilled Care Center hangs a sign informing visitors that the occupant is an artist.  As soon as you open and step through that door, you see why.  Shirley’s walls hold several of her works, and their variety, skill, and beauty is evident.

Shirley has been an artist for most of her life.  “I just always liked to draw,” she said when we interviewed her before her Passions Project photo session.  This love of drawing grew into a passion for painting as she grew older.  The artwork in her room includes both oils and pastels, and she’s painted in watercolor, as well.  Oils are her favorite, though, because of their vibrant colors and their texture.

Shirley was fortunate in that she was able to support herself and her three children with her art.  She sold dozens of paintings over the course of her working life and, while she taught occasionally, most of her income came from selling her artwork. 

Unfortunately, Shirley is no longer able to paint.  She still enjoys looking around at all the art hanging on her walls, most of which is her own.  Her family, which now includes over a dozen grandchildren and several great-grandchildren as well as her two daughters, one son, and their spouses, also have and enjoy some of her remaining paintings.  Her youngest daughter lives locally, and Shirley feels lucky to get to spend a lot of time with her.

Shirley has painted everything from garden scenes to wildlife.  Her favorite painting she’s ever done is a full-length portrait of her daughter.  It was challenging, she says, but totally worth it.  And it’s not the only large painting she’s completed; once, when she was living in Arizona, she painted a large mural in a public space.  The painting of irises she’s pictured with here is Shirley’s favorite of the pictures she has left.  She’s certainly able to capture the beauty in what she sees!

On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the United States’ declaration of independence from Great Britain.  Independence is a trait we as Americans continue to value in ourselves, both as individuals and as a nation.

In fact, the possibility of losing independence is one the main reasons why many Americans fear aging.  And as we get older, we’re more likely to be confronted with the possibility that we won’t always be independent.  A 2017 study presented at the Innovations in Aging conference found that a fear of dependency—that is, a fear of being unable to take care of one’s self—was a strong predictor of depression in American older adults.  Even when other factors like the subjects’ health, age, and disability were taken into account, older adults who were afraid of being dependent on others were more likely to be depressed than those who didn’t share this fear.

This is particularly worrying because, whether we like it or not, aging often means we lose some measure of independence.  In fact, some seniors move into communities like Immanuel because they know they can no longer live on their own, whether because of health problems or difficulty with the daily tasks of home maintenance.  Immanuel offers a whole spectrum of services, from Assisted Living to Skilled Nursing, for seniors needing various levels of help with activities of daily living.  While it’s part of Immanuel’s philosophy to respect residents’ choices, it’s hard to deny that some residents are here precisely because they can’t live independently.

So how do we help seniors avoid the depression that seems to come with dependency in aging?  First, we can remember that aging is something that happens to all of us (if we’re lucky).  It’s not shameful.  The physical changes that inevitably accompany aging are part of the package.  They’re often unpleasant, but they’re not shameful, either.  Aging just is, and all of us, at all ages, should work on remembering and respecting that.  It won’t stop dependency, but it can go a long way toward mitigating depression.

Second, we can look for tradeoffs and ways that accepting help in some areas can help seniors maintain some forms of independence.  For example, a senior who has some mobility problems can go more places for longer if she uses a walker than if she resists it.  Or, seniors who move in to communities like Buffalo Hill Terrace often find that they go out more because they have someone else to drive them and friends to accompany them.  They’re not getting out independently, but they’re not remaining isolated, either.  By depending on others (or on devices) for some things, seniors can often continue to do the things that matter most to them.

As we celebrate American independence, let’s make sure we remember the many forms it can take.  And let’s also remember that none of us lives completely independently.  It seems almost cliché to invoke English poet John Donne’s “Meditation 17” here, but I’m going to do it anyway.  When Donne wrote his famous lines “No man is an island,/entire of itself;/every man is a piece of the continent,/a part of the main” in the winter of 1623, he was seriously ill.  The poem reflects on the interconnectedness of communities and the loss a community feels when one member passes away.  This interconnectedness means that it’s okay for us to need each other, as Donne surely needed his friends and neighbors when he was sick.  All of us will need more help as we age, and that’s okay.  We can depend on others without losing ourselves.

The long-running British television series Midsomer Murders probably isn’t the first place you’d look if you wanted commentary on aging in the twenty-first century.  After all, it’s a murder mystery show on which people of all ages die, the lead is not in any consistent way involved in elder care, and all of the regular characters are working-age adults.  However, the show portrays seniors as integral parts of the communities in Midsomer County (the extremely murderous fictional area in which the show is set) and often uses side plots to address issues in aging.

In general, the show does a good job of integrating aging issues into its plots, and seniors are never just jokes.  The two aging-related subjects that arise most frequently on Midsomer Murders are the vulnerability of older adults to fraud and the financial challenges that arise because seniors on fixed incomes can’t continue to live the lives to which they have become accustomed.  These two sides of the aging coin—seniors as victims and seniors as active agents looking for ways to meet their own needs—combine to show an interesting portrait of aging in the twenty-first century.

The two plots converge in interesting ways in the two episodes of Midsomer Murders that deal most directly with seniors.  The Season 3 episode “Blue Herrings” is set in an Assisted Living community of sorts (the show calls it a nursing home, but it bears a lot closer resemblance to Assisted Living in American terms).  In this episode, the main character, Inspector Barnaby, is visiting his aunt Alice, who’s there to recover after surgery.  He notices that there are a lot of strange goings-on at Lawnside, and one of the residents tells him she suspects that two staff members are conspiring to steal residents’ property by manipulating them into changing their wills and then murdering them.  Stolen jewelry and other irregularities compound both the residents’ and Barnaby’s suspicions, and everything comes to a head after a couple of suspicious deaths.

While all is not quite well at Lawnside, it turns out that residents are not being exploited by staff.  The one actual murderer was a resident’s family member, and the situation is just sad.  And the thief was another resident.  Tired of being pretty much confined to Lawnside but unable to afford regular meals out or taxis to the pub, he steals his fellow residents’ valuables and sells them as if they were his own.  While this is shown to be a bit silly and could easily have been played as a joke, the show clearly portrays the situation as having been brought about by the character’s circumstances.  He worked as a chauffeur, didn’t have significant savings, and has bills, so even small luxuries are struggles.  That he obtains them through theft certainly isn’t condoned, but the show treats him with understanding.

In Season 6’s “A Talent for Life,” one of the two central murder victims is an older adult.  Isobel Hewitt loves driving fast cars, and she was accustomed to living a luxurious lifestyle.  As she aged, however, she ran out of funds and had to rely on family.  When she and a friend are murdered while fly fishing, Barnaby first suspects that another friend killed her to get his hands on her assets.  After he learns that she is no longer wealthy, he no longer worries about theft, but he does suspect her hypercritical relatives, who constantly complained that Isobel wouldn’t reduce her expenses.

In “A Talent for Life,” the murder has less to do with Isobel’s age than with how she treated people.  She was fun, but she wasn’t always kind, and that ultimately came back to haunt her.  But her money problems are real problems, and they are caused in part by her age.  In general, Midsomer Murders suggests that it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect seniors to live in poverty just because they are no longer able to work.  At the same time, it shows how older adults are particularly vulnerable to fraud and theft that have the potential to leave them even more impoverished.  At the same time, it lets older adults be human.  Like everybody on Midsomer Murders, seniors frequently have agendas, and they’re as flawed as younger characters.  Seniors can be victims, the show suggests, and they’re uniquely vulnerable in some ways, but they don’t stop being who they are just because they’ve aged.  This commentary is subtle and occasional, but the show definitely has a clear point of view on aging.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten an up-close, personal look at family caregiving.  My grandfather, who is a resident here at Buffalo Hill Terrace, has been having some health problems.  Fortunately, he’s doing better, but it’s meant a lot of running around for my mother (his daughter).  And this week, my grandmother (my father’s mother) is in town.  She’s been having a problem that my dad has the skills to fix, so she decided to pay him a visit.  Since my dad and I both work full time, my mom is the one doing a lot of the preparation and day-to-day caregiving for my grandmother, as well.

It’s meant that things are extra busy, especially for my mom, and a lot of planning has gone in to making sure that everyone gets where they need to be.  I help when I can, and I’m lucky to work in an environment that understands and values family commitments, but there are limits to what I’m able to do.  The same goes for my father, a professional in independent practice. 

What this has shown me is that while caregiving for a senior is certainly a collaborative enterprise, much of the work out of necessity often falls on one member of a family.  It’s usually the person whose schedule has the most built-in flexibility.  My mom works part-time and has many interests and responsibilities beyond caregiving, but the caregiving falls mostly to her because her other responsibilities can more easily be scheduled around it.

This may be practical, but it’s definitely not fair.  I know my mom is happy to take care of her dad and, when the need arises, of her mother-in-law.  She does it because she loves them and because they need care.  And my dad is involved with both his own mother’s needs (of course) and with my grandfather’s.  But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that she doesn’t need or want more support.  Here are some thing I try to keep in mind when thinking about how to be a supportive family member to someone caring for a senior:

  • Careful planning is important.  The primary caregiver knows this, but we can all make sure we’re part of the plan.  If you can say, for example, “I am available on Tuesdays and Thursdays after four and usually on the weekends,” you let the person doing the planning know that you’re willing to help and when it’s practical to pass a task on to you.
  • This planning is all very well, but no amount of planning can prevent a crisis.  Crises are often the moments in which caregivers need the most help, and if we can be flexible, they’re also the times when those of us around them can be the most helpful.  If we can respond by doing what’s needed in a crisis, we can take quite a bit of stress off of a caregiver’s plate.
  • Remember to enjoy being with the senior who’s your loved one and that often, caregivers, too, find joy in the work.  Caregiving is stressful, but caregivers very often do it out of love.  If we can approach it joyfully, remembering that our time with our aging loved ones is always limited, we can help reduce stress for both ourselves and for the main caregivers we support.

If you spend enough time at Buffalo Hill Terrace, chances are you’ll encounter a long, brown, mixed-breed dog walking through the halls with one of his people.  He’s a very friendly dog, so he’ll probably come up to you to say hi.  At least, that’s how many visitors and residents first encounter David and Martha Maurer and their dog, Toby.

Toby has actually been in Martha’s life for longer than David has.  At the time of our conversation, she’d had the dog for about ten years, and now, that’s closer to eleven.  She and David have been married for eight years—both had previous spouses and were widowed.  Toby had a previous person in his life, too.  Martha’s neighbor in Texarkana, Arkansas had adopted him through a rescue program.  But Toby kept digging under the fence into Martha’s yard.  Eventually, Martha and her neighbor agreed that Toby should come to live with her on a permanent basis.  They’ve been together ever since.

After Martha’s first husband died, Toby used to snuggle with her, and he was very comforting.  Soon, though, Toby had two people.  Martha and David are both originally from California.  In fact, they went to the same high school and dated briefly.  Fifty-seven years after their original meeting, they reconnected online, and they eventually married.  Toby quickly adjusted to having David in his and Martha’s lives, and he’s certainly happy to be with either or both of them.

The small family relocated to Montana upon Martha and David’s marriage.  Some years before, David had moved to Somers because he was tired of California.  He heard Montana was a nice place, and when he came to visit, he agreed.  When he reconnected with Martha, Montana was where they chose to make their home. 

The couple and their dog moved into Buffalo Hill Terrace in the summer of 2017, and it’s been their home ever since.  Every time Martha or David takes Toby out for a walk, he stops to greet almost everyone he sees.  They also make regular visits to residents at the Immanuel Skilled Care Center, where Toby brightens the days of residents and staff.

Both David and Martha have long valued community service.  David volunteered with a number of organizations when he lived in California, and Martha still volunteers with a charity that reunites adoptees and their birth parents.  Both David and Martha like to feel like they make the world around them better.

As for Toby, when he’s not out and about visiting current friends and making new ones, he’s an active dog who likes to run around.  He also enjoys spending quiet time with his people.  In spite of his playful nature, Toby doesn’t much enjoy playing with dog toys, and he doesn’t like to travel.  He’s a social homebody, making him the perfect companion for two community-minded seniors like Martha and David!