5 min read
They came with raised canes, pushing their walkers with purpose. They were elderly, and they were pissed. Enough with the indignities, enough with being treated like children. This was a mass uprising of 80 and 90-year olds at Sunny Acres, the independent living facility for seniors who enjoyed their Bingo with shot of Baileys. My mom lives there and reported to me this sudden autumn of discontent. No one was happy with their new executive director and they were uniting. I thought I had better get to Florida to see what was going on.
This executive director was new at the job – she was inexperienced and rash, perhaps a little insecure?
I suppose she wanted to make a good impression with the corporate home office. That meant coming up with some new-fangled arrangements at the facility designed to save money but not necessarily agreeable to her senior tenants.
Not that she ever asked their opinions. In fact, the general feeling was she talked down to the occupants of Sunny Acres. It was said she disrespected them. The scuttlebutt was a resident had sat down with the director to express dissatisfaction with the meal selection. Her reply, or at least the rumor of that reply, echoed from the card room to the library and rebounded over dinner.
“If you don’t like it here, go someplace else.”
Welll…… The entire facility took a collective breath at the audacity, the royal chutzpah of that reply. It was not very nice.
Get to Know Your Clientele
In any service job probably the number one requirement is to get to know and understand your clientele. What are their desires, their dreams – could they expect a nice piece of chicken at dinner tonight?
This then, was the fatal flaw of this newbie director. She didn’t quite understand that these elderly folk, while a bit frail and a little bent over, were her clientele, her customers. And it was her job to make them happy. Or at least not insult them.
She also didn’t understand that these people had lived full lives as professionals, teachers, lawyers, doctors, business people and most were quite sharp, had strong opinions and didn’t care to be treated like children. They already knew from children - most were grandparents and some great-grandparents.
And then there was the issue of food. The director didn’t understand its importance at Sunny Acres. These folks love to eat.
As mom would say,
- They eat like it’s going out of style
- They eat like they’ve never seen food before
- They eat like there’s no tomorrow
There’s a popular salad bar in the dining room. A while back one poor lady collapsed right next to this salad bar. It took forever for the EMTs to arrive and so the unfortunate woman had to lie there waiting for help.
But the thing of it is, dining hours are limited, and the salad bar itself could get packed up at any time, so… a few hungry diners stepped around the poor soul lying there to reach some slices of pineapple.
That’s how important the food was here. This unfortunate and inexperienced director didn’t know enough to take the full measure of any dining room complaints that came her way.
She had unknowingly stumbled into a geriatric mine field. The citizens of Sunny Acres possessed all the elements for insurrection – dignity, willpower and time. They had all the time in the world to talk amongst themselves. Among canasta, yoga and brain boost classes, they traded talk of the latest indignities brought upon their home.
And you know what - they had every right to complain – if not now, when? They’ve put in their years, worked their jobs, raised their families, saved their money, beat the Nazis and Khrushchev. Why shouldn’t they get their roast beef a little more rare with a little less fat?
This was a generation that had earned its right to a comfortable and appetizing retirement. Translation: their hands might be shaky, but they could still dial a phone.
As quickly as you could say ‘Jeopardy’, they were digging through the Sunny Acres directory, calling corporate HQ with complaints about the new ‘bigshot’ director and her snooty ways.
The Natives Are Restless
I suspect these complaints from Sunny Acres, must have generated more than just eye rolling back at Corporate because in no time word came that some mucky-muck would be dispatched to the sunshine state to handle the revolt.
A big meeting was set to take place after lunch in the auditorium. Though I had my plane ticket, some obligations held up my trip. But Mom said she would give me a full report. Everyone was going to the meeting. Especially the Council.
The Council were a lively group of retirees who usually tracked, processed and forwarded grievances to the local management. Those out of state phone calls and complaints directed all the way to the home office in the mid-west had the distinct fingerprints of… The Council.
And so, in the same room that just hours before had hosted a Wii bowling tournament, the citizens of Sunny Acres gathered… as is their constitutional right, to meet this suit sent from Corporate and air their complaints.
Which they did, especially the leader of Council. My mom said he was smart and articulate. He did a very good job. He had been a college professor or something.
At last, these good people were being heard. The lady from corporate listened attentively to complaints ranging from the brisket to the air conditioning (too cold, not cold enough). But mainly this was a forum about their local director. They wanted her gone. They were the customers here. They had rights!
For her part the company rep was pleasant, respectful and…. non-committal. She promised to investigate the situation. But the general tenor of the room was, “What’s to investigate? This director is a flop.”
I had to get down there. What was going on in Florida? How bad had things become? Are the denizens of Sunny Acres chaining their walkers together in protest, sealing off the game room? Had they pushed back against their corporate oppressor with an impromptu hunger strike?....
No. No chance of a hunger strike. Not this crowd. Scratch the hunger strike.
Still, I had to see the uprising for myself. Maybe I could help – call the local papers and TV stations. Organize a picket line or a sit-in… maybe a sit-in with bridge chairs? I don’t know… I just wanted to support my mom.
And that’s where things stood as I boarded my flight.
More Friendly Skies
Once again, I was back on my favorite airline, Virgin. You may recall from a previous story I had some seating and personnel issues with these folks (“Mr. Frank Stallone Wants to Read on this Flight!”).
And yep as soon as I boarded the plane – there was a problem. When booking the flight, I had picked an aisle seat – 25D - somewhere toward the back of the plane. But not the very back, like next to the toilet or something. The seating chart showed I still had some buffer between me and the loo.
But something went terribly wrong and I discovered that on this plane seat 25D is right next to the big box – the crapper in the sky. The worst seat on the plane. How could this be? Either they switched to a different kind of plane than originally advertised, or the seating chart was never accurate to begin with.
I pointed out this glitch to one of the flight attendants and I swear she stifled just a hint of a smirk. Maybe the online seating chart is a scam. Maybe this is how they get people to book the toilet seats.
Two elderly women coming down the aisle announced themselves as my seat mates. But they were confused, “We didn’t book seats next to the bathroom. This is terrible!”
I had to agree, and we quickly bonded over our unexpected status at the back of the bus. They were visiting their cousin in Florida but were angry how the airline had “tricked” them.
Considering the purpose of my mission, I half expected these older women to loudly protest or circulate a petition demonstrating this new senior power I’d been hearing about. But they were so thrown by the seating situation, they just complained to me.
I half considered encouraging them to join me in protest but… no that didn’t seem right. They just wanted to visit their cousin in Hialeah and figure out how their touch screens worked. So I helped them, showing off the various entertainment and lunch options.
For the three of us, today’s lunch would be accompanied by the excitement of the jet’s toilet- power flushing, a mere foot away.
No sooner did we reach cruising altitude than a potty line started to form. It was a steady stream of travelers lingering next to me, all about butt high to my face.
Men, women, young and old brushed against me on their way to relieving themselves. I leaned away from the aisle, closer to my elderly seat mate. But that just gave the antsy children license to lean further into my space.
More bodies stuff themselves into the aisle - those already on line and now others exiting the toilet, squeezing back to their seats. They came at me – grabbing my headrest for support. A few of the bigger guys draped their arms on the seat back in front of me, looking for a place to rest. Their elbows dangling over my movie screen.
Little kids used my shoulder as a support as they passed by. One lady steadied herself by grabbing my touch screen and freezing the movie I was trying to distract myself with. All were oblivious of the human being seated just inches from their bathroom route, attempting to get through a romantic comedy.
Amidst this crush I sank further into my seat, attempting to eat my curry chicken sandwich. Which was appropriate, as I’ve flown crowded flights in India. But there was a lot more room to stretch out flying over the sub-continent than there was here in North America.
As dusk started to fall the plane banked and we headed into Florida.
Welcome to Sunny Acres
I always love the final approach into Florida. They have the best clouds, anywhere – a thousand shades of white cumulonimbus marshmallows. It’s like you’re flying in a renaissance painting. Can you imagine if Leonardo had the chance to fly through the clouds over Miami? The wonderful paintings we’d have today…
At luggage claim the suitcases, as usual, were a few hundred miles behind us. Not really - it just seemed like we were in in limbo at carousel number 3 - so I called mom to let her know I arrived. She had some news for me.
There were rumors. She had heard them over dinner (more precisely, the grilled Tilapia, which was quite good) that… the executive director was out! It was just a rumor, unconfirmed, but still it got the place buzzing. If true, the gentle souls of Sunny Acres had ripped apart their foe and triumphed.
I offered my congratulations. She said to drive safe.
About 45 minutes later I arrived. It was evening and the place was quiet – the lobby almost empty. The receptionist gave me a nice welcome. No signs of riot, rebellion or insurrection.
Mom was sitting there in the lobby, waiting to greet me. It’s always wonderful to see her. As she advances deeper into her 90’s the visits become more precious.
She had some more news for me… the rumors were true. Not only was the old new executive director out but a new, new executive director had been hired.
“What?! I just spoke to you 45 minute ago. When did all this happen?”
“I suppose in the last 45 minutes.”, was her casual reply. “My friend Roz told me when we were having cheesecake. And her friend Harriet, also told me it was true.”
So there it was – certified by Harriet - complete and utter victory. Mom even reported a profile of the new director – he was local, very experienced – also, he was tall and dressed nicely. I’m not sure what those last two descriptors had to do with anything but there you are.
I congratulated mom on this victory as we headed to her apartment. Tomorrow we could meet the new director as he was having a coffee klatch here in the lobby. We would see first hand if he was that tall, also how good his listening skills were.
When we entered the lobby the next morning there were about 25 residents filling every available sofa seat. In front of them stood Ted. He in fact was nicely dressed. Now… tallness is a relative thing. Most of the people of Sunny Acres were on the shorter side so, in truth, Ted wasn’t that tall. But tall enough for them to think he was.
He seemed open and friendly, talking about his experience – 20 years in the business. Ted knew how to run a meeting. This one opened with several complaints: too many pumpernickel bagels – there should be more onion and sesame. And the coffee… not hot enough.
Ted was good. He thoughtfully nodded, taking in these opening grievances like they were a list of demands at the Geneva Convention. He made notes; he promised results.
And he meant business. He announced he was going to re-open the Sunny Acres beauty salon. Smiles all around. And, he was going to re-open a small store for incidentals. This really meant something. When you can’t drive, you can’t get toothpaste whenever you want.
But the core of what Ted wanted to share was this place was “yours” and it’s all about what you want. Finally, these seniors were being heard. And though he had only been there a short time, this man seemed committed to helping my mom and her friends have the best possible home.
They deserved it.
As the coffee klatch finished Ted got a round of applause. Everyone was happy – things were looking up. Mom felt like she could go to Ted with any problems she had. And so could I.
To celebrate, I took mom out for a haircut. And then on to Vincent’s Fashions for Ladies. She needed pants.
Later, at lunch I sat with mom and two of her friends. They had missed the coffee and were curious about the new director. Over their lunches of grilled cheese, omelets and a nova platter, we gave them a full report. They liked what they heard, especially about the beauty salon being reopened.
As I sat there working through my Cobb salad, I took in these wonderful ladies, still active in their ninth and tenth decades. They were delightful and talked about grandchildren, politics and dinner plans - who was going to sit with whom at dinner that evening.
These ladies were just a sampling of all the smart, lively grandmas and grandpas inhabiting Sunny Acres. They were all an unshakeable force - had always been and they knew it.
Now everyone else knew it as well.
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