Bonnie, a social worker, worked as the activities director of a nursing home or, “retirement center” in a small town about 100 miles outside of Chicago. The center had about twenty-five residents. Bonnie had come from a small town in Alabama, and when she and her family moved to the south side of Chicago, it was Bonnie's job to "attend to my grandmother. She lived with us. My Mom and Dad worked all day, and when I got home I made sure that my grandmother was taken care of. I'd sit with her, drink some tea, and we'd read together. Or she'd tell me stories about her life. I loved it. And I loved her. Never knew I'd make a life of the things I did as a child with my grandmother but here I am."
The criteria for admission to the facility was some semblance of independent living, for the most part. Specifically, they were ambulatory, had few or no signs of dementia, could feed and bathe themselves, and had no chronic health problem that required intensive medical support.
"We rarely get any visitors, though, and that's what these folks really need. They have one another, but sometimes a fresh face can offer such a light to them."
"On top of that," Bonnie said, as she sat behind her desk, "the distance doesn't help." The facility was in a rural section of Illinois, about one hundred miles outside of Chicago. "One hundred miles outside of Chicago is a long way out. A good two hour drive coming from the city. And there's not a lot of housing out this way. Even the staff have nearly an hour’s drive to and from the facility,”
“People get depressed,” Bonnie said, “and it’s a hard time for all of them. Visitors are few. It’s a long drive. I suspect that many of these families put their parents or older relatives here, in part, because of the distance. I hate to say that, but sometimes I think it gives many of them an excuse not to come."
Bonnie continued, “The place is kind of small. There’s not a lot of room to do many things. The TV is on, but people tend to stay in their rooms. Most folks get ready in the morning, have their breakfast, read the paper, and nap. And they do the same things throughout the day."
"No one calls these folks. It’s so sad sometimes.”
One day, Bonnie found out that the administrator’s father had passed away. One of the residents got wind of this, and got the other residents together to memorialize the administrator’s father. They sent a small basket of pink azaleas. An older woman who lived at the facility had raised pink azaleas’ in her yard many years ago, and always made a point of sending them for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and births when she lived nearer her family.
A week later, without any warning, five members of the Administrator’s family made a special trip to thank each of the residents in person. The family catered a dinner and dined with the residents on smoked salmon, barbecued ribs, and roast turkey. The residents were beside themselves.
The next day, the mood of the facility had changed, as Bonnie put it, “from January to June.” And it gave Bonnie an idea.
Following the lead of the woman who raised the pink azaleas, Bonnie got out the newspaper. She saw that in their town that week, two people had died and one little girl had been born.
She ran down the hallway and spoke to the Administrator. It turned out that sending a small basket of pink azaleas, plus shipping, was fifteen dollars. Bonnie asked if there was a fund that could cover the forty five dollars to send the family of the deceased and the new parents some azaleas.
The Administrator, who was still so appreciative of the gesture to his family, looked at Bonnie and said, “No, but let’s start one. I’ll pitch in the first fifty dollars.”
With that, the pink azaleas were sent.
Not three days later, a thank you note came in the mail from the family of one of the deceased. In the card was a story of the person’s life and a check for fifty dollars, made out to the retirement home.
A week after that, the parents of the newborn made the drive to the facility to show the residents the new baby!
Bonnie said, “The residents, they knew they were on to something. And this place lit up like fireworks. Now, when they got up, the first thing they did before coffee, breakfast, or anything else was to open the paper to the obituaries and birth notices!"
In time, according to Bonnie, people started showing up at the center. Families of loved ones, parents of babies, all came to share their appreciation. Most stayed for dinner, but all of them met the residents and thanked them for their generosity.
A few months into this process, the residents discovered that a famous string quartet from Berlin was coming to play at a college just outside of Chicago.
“Don’t you know it,” Bonnie said, “they sent that quartet a basket of azaleas. They had built up quite a fund and felt that these young musicians needed a proper welcome and thanks for the beautiful music they share. And not two days later, we had a string quartet playing at our Sunday night dinner!”
When I last spoke to Bonnie, she couldn’t talk long. She said, “It’s Sunday. The parking lot is full. I have to get out there before people run into each other!”