-Gladys and Ruth-

Back when I was in High School, I did volunteer work at an Adult Day Care Center.  When I think back on that time, there are two older women in particular that always come to my mind, Gladys, and Ruth.

In order to be accepted into this school, as it was out of my catchment area, I had to pick a learning focus and do what was called a ‘Career Preparation Program’.  As I have always had a strong affinity towards Art, I without hesitation chose the ‘Art Career Prep Program’. This program was a great experience, it essentially forced me to continue exploring my artistic passion throughout the next couple of years. 

I took a jewelry making class, making rings and things. An art 2D class, focusing largely on drawing and painting. An Art 3D class, where we worked with sculpting, soldering, and glass work. I took acting, and briefly took a photography class.  To say the least it was a creative time in my life. 

One of the prerequisites of being accepted into this course, was having to complete 200hrs of volunteer work in the field of your chosen program. So a couple of friends and I chose to do our volunteer work together at the “Cubbon Adult Day Care Centre”.  The centre was just down the road from our school, so twice a week we would walk down there around lunch time and spend the afternoon doing arts and crafts with the elderly residents (I know, cute right?!).  We would prepare and set up for the afternoon projects. Getting all the supplies set out so the residents could jump right into it once they had completed their ‘post lunch workout’, which was a thrilling routine of gentle physical and vocal exercises.

While setting up, we could always hear them practicing their exercises in the next room over.  The door was often shut, but sometimes left slightly ajar, just enough that we could catch a glimpse of them doing their ‘routine’.  They would do circles with their arms, first the left, then the right, they would then move onto their legs, stretching one and then the other.  They would shake out theirs limbs, jiggle their feet and hands and roll their neck side to side.  Some would do their exercises sitting down in their lunch chair, others propped on the edge of their walker, and then there were always few ‘athletes’ in the group that would do them standing solo. These ‘athletes’ were always quite spry with their movements, really putting their hips into it (although likely not their original hips).  Let’s not forget the vocal exercises, oh the vocal exercises.  They would repeat after the care aide, A, E, I, O, U, U, U, A, E, I, O,   YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOU.   We would often quietly join in on this part in a slightly high school-esque mockingly sort of way.  Never loud enough to cause a disruption, but the three of us would get a quick laugh in.

 I must admit it was pretty darn cute to witness their little exercise routine.  Ever since I can remember I have always been intrigued by, and loved ‘old’ people.  Even at the gentle age of 4 or 5 years old my parents always knew where to find me, I was through the hedges, sipping juice with my elderly neighbors, watching them read the newspaper or doing some other amazingly captivating activity.  If I wasn’t hanging out watching my neighbors do ‘old people things’ like gardening or reading (disclaimer: not just for ‘old’ people), you would find me downstairs in the suite watching my Grandma Kirby watch golf, helping her bake a batch of peanut butter cookies for her seniors centre friends, or sitting on her windowsill munching on a digestive cookie while having a chat.

I have always thought deeply whenever I see older people on the streets, ‘What have they been through?’, Are they happy?’, ‘Are they lonely?’, ‘Are they content with the life that they lived?’, ‘How much time do they have left?’, ‘Will I look like that?’, ‘Will I be happy with my life?’, ‘Will I make it to be that age?’, ‘Should I go and hug them (probably not), and the list goes on.  So when I found out that doing art with the seniors would not only get me school credits but also out of class for two afternoons a week, my answer was, Sign. Me. Up.

When I reflect back on this time, I am always reminded of this one woman, Gladys.  Gladys, would never participate in the ‘post lunch workout’.   Instead of participating, she would always chose to come and sit in the corner of the room we were setting up, in ‘her’ chair.   Gladys, had fiery red died hair (like Mrs. Costanza, for any Seinfeld fans out there) and she was always wearing the same style outfit. A blouse and a knee-length skirt, her over-sized skin-toned pantyhose, that by this time of the day had always rolled down midway to her swollen edema’d looking legs, and just up from her off-white orthopedic sneakers.   She would sit there seemingly disgruntled and frequently muttering under her breath.   The girls and I often having a laugh at how grumpy ol’ Gladys appeared to be.  Poor ol’ Gladys.

The other woman that comes to mind, in a much different light than Gladys, is Ruth.  Ruth was in her 90’s, under 5 feet tall, short white hair, a kind soft face, and she was on-the-ball, mentally.   Ruth was always happy to see us (she was always happy to see everyone), and she was always a healthy participant with every activity we did.  One day Ruth asked if she could tell us a joke. Us being 17 year old high school students, were of course always up for a joke. But could this 90-something year old ‘Ruth’ really have something worthy of a laugh?  We of course obliged and Ruth began to tell us her joke.  She starts off saying, “So I was at a restaurant the other week, and our waiter was a young man.  He had this stuff on his face”, she flutters her fingers over her chin, as to imply facial hair. “So I asked him”, “Hey, what do you call that there on your face?”’.   He points to his chin and his facial hair, “This?”, “YA!” she says.  “Well it’s a goatee”, the waiter replies.  “Huh” says Ruth, “You know, I’ve been peeing out of one of those for 94 years, and never knew it was called a ‘goatee’!”

Well that sealed it for me, Ruth was my favorite human ever, and at that moment, I knew I wanted to be as full of life and humor as she was when I one day (hopefully) reached her age.

I always thought, man, if you have to choose in life whether you end up a Gladys or a Ruth, always choose Ruth.  Looking back, that was the obvious choice, but what if Gladys wasn’t a ‘Gladys’ at all, what if she had experienced something so hard that it made her pull away from other people.  Or maybe she wasn’t taught the social skills that she longed for.  Was it possible that Gladys had spent her life being bullied, or had experienced a trauma so deep that in turn it kept her sheltered for her own safety and protection.  What if Gladys had equally as funny jokes and stories to tell as Ruth did, but nobody ever asked her or gave her the chance.  Maybe she wanted to partake in the after lunch exercises, but was embarrassed because she couldn’t do one of the moves. Maybe she had an old injury, one that she didn’t want to bring up because discussing it was embarrassing or harder for her than just removing herself from the activities all together.  What if Gladys felt betrayed by her family for putting in this ‘day care’ program and this was her rebellion, or worse, what if Gladys didn’t have any family at all? and she was just, alone, and sad.

These are things that I did not contemplate as a young teen.  It was an easy answer back then, be a Ruth, always be a Ruth.  Well this may not be the answer, and making a choice between the two may not be the question.

What if we could live our days with the livelihood and humor of a ‘Ruth’, but at the same time hold compassion for all of the ‘Gladys’’ in the world.   Saying hi to the ‘Gladys’ that’s looking lonely at the bus stop. Sending out a smile to the ‘Gladys’ sitting in the park.  Or just offering support to the ‘Gladys’ who you see struggling through their day, however that may be. 

What if we could live our lives with the intention to allow all of the ‘Gladys” of the world, the power and strength to one day become the ‘Ruth’ they long to be?

Looking back, taking the ‘art career preparation’ program ended up ‘preparing’ me for a lot more than I had expected.

Dedicating my days to all the Gladys’ of the world, while putting in my time and work, as an aspiring Ruth