LeadingAge Magazine · January-February 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 01

In these personal thought pieces, contributors reflect on the core values and beliefs acquired and lessons learned in our not-for-profit sector.

Understanding and Kindness Build the Best Bridges

by Connie Devaney

I was raised in rural isolation and poverty. I was not a good student, but was more interested in causing mischief. Undaunted, my high school principal was determined to ensure that I finish school. When I was kicked out of the library, he had me spend the period in his office eating candy bars and discussing what I might like to do. Since I was no longer allowed in library at all, we decided I could spend that time as a teacher’s helper in the special education classroom.

Connie Devaney
Connie Devaney

In that classroom, I learned that it felt really good to be useful and to help other people. Mr. Brown’s thoughtful support started me on my way to earning a master’s degree in psychology. I have learned that any success I have achieved has been because other kind, caring people have boosted me up.

I remember watching Bobby Sands with horror in the early 1980s when I was in Denver finishing graduate school, using government loans borrowed at 1%. Bobby and 9 other young, Irish patriots were on hunger strike in a prison in Northern Ireland. As I watched these men die, one by one, I learned the importance of believing in something bigger than yourself and how that belief can sustain you through unthinkable suffering.

For 18 years, I have worked for an agency serving seniors who don't look like me, come from places I've never been, and speak languages I don’t understand. Yet, we are community. I have learned that regardless of differences, we are more alike than unalike. I have learned that understanding and kindness build the best bridges.

When my best friend and husband of 44 years passed away, I learned from the women living at Kawabe House that I, like them, could survive and even enjoy life again. My adult son led me through my grief and taught me to redefine myself as a single person and to take one step at a time to move forward. I have learned that one of the best parts of parenting is watching your children grow into competent adults you not only love, but actually like.

After working with seniors for more than 40 years, I have learned that safe, affordable housing is one of the most important building blocks we can provide. Integrating community and supportive services with housing is the brass ring.

I have learned that if I am sincerely passionate about helping people and doing the right thing, most people will sense this and follow me. I have learned that having money certainly makes things easier, but it will not necessarily make you happy. Happiness is following your true north, believing in something bigger than yourself, being surrounded by family and friends, and the occasional Irish whiskey.

Connie Devaney is executive director of Kawabe Memorial House in Seattle, WA.

 

Amy Schectman
Amy Schectman

Lessons From Camp on the Lifelong Need to Belong

by Amy Schectman

One of my best memories from childhood was going to summer camp. My parents chose an all-girls camp with 250 campers—5 units with 5 cabins of 10 girls each. I went not knowing a soul and came away with lifelong friends and a deep commitment to living in community as the best possible way to grow individually and contribute to life.

As I write this, I am sitting with my camp best friend, 50 years after we met, and reflecting on our camp’s tremendous community spirit. For the summer, we weren’t gawky pre-teens from different towns, but all Mohawkers—part of something important (as the song says, “We’re Mohawkers born and Mohawkers bred …”).

As campers, we had multiple identities. We felt pride as members of our cabin, our unit, the activity groups we chose (I was always in drama), and as part of the Mohawk unity. At camp, we all belonged. With such a wide choice of activities, each camper could find one place to fit in immediately and another to try something new. Everyone learned to root for everyone else’s success. That sense of safety and spirit allowed each of us to grow; we could try new things without fear of appearing stupid, because everyone was trying new things too.

My early experience at camp of life in community as compelling, supportive, and enriching has shaped my view of aging in community as the aspiration for high-quality senior living.

At Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, we define aging in community as living a full life of connection and purpose in a dynamic, supportive environment. Its components include interesting, varied, and stimulating programs so everyone can find a place to engage. Our resident services coordinators help each individual find his or her “in” to our communities. We offer extensive lifelong learning; music, arts, and culture; fitness and wellness; intergenerational programming; computer centers; and transportation. With 24/7 staff presence to help with emergencies, or give reassurance when needed, we pursue our goal of providing apartments-for-life so that everyone will thrive with us for the entire span of their senior years.

We’ve got all sorts of statistics and facts to prove how much the aging in community approach extends both the quantity and quality of life. But I judge more by how it feels. When I walk the hallways, I see small groups chatting amiably, people playing ping-pong who share no common language but a common spirit, or our choruses performing while otherwise-chatty neighbors sit at rapt attention. When one resident comes to report her concern that a neighbor has been skipping book group meetings, it feels like Camp Mohawk, like community, and that’s success!

Amy Schectman is president and CEO of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton, MA.