Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Apple Butter

September 9, 2010

It happens every year, and still, it sneaks up on me.  Each September I watch my husband prepare, so it shouldn’t surprise me, but it always does.  I go out to the porch to water my geraniums and hear the crack and splinter of wood under axe.  The air is still and hot, not very conducive to splitting wood.  My awareness shifts, and  I know he’s down behind the garage, sweating  and stretching his muscles,  dividing  lengths of branch and limb into halves and quarters.   The pieces are piling up into a small mountain beside him.  That’s when I remember. It’s almost apple butter time.   I love the spicy thickness of it when spooned onto a hot buttered biscuit, but I dread making it.   It’s my husband’s family tradition, not mine, and it’s hard work.

In another week or so, I’ll overhear the telephone conversation Bruce has with his eighty-three year old father.  “I’m thinking the week of October twenty-third.  You got plans that weekend?—Ok, put it down and we’ll shoot for that.—No I got plenty wood.  You just make sure the stand is in good shape and get the kettle out and clean it up.  We don’t have to patch any holes in it do we? –Alright, We’ll call Ben and see if he can come home from school that weekend.  We need all the help we can get.”

Next, I’ll hear him scratching around in the attic, banging his head and cursing.  He’ll call me to the stairs that fold out of the ceiling and he’ll be bent over up there, feeding the long handled wooden stirring paddle down the steps to me.  Next will come the glass canning jars and rings stored in wooden apple boxes.  I’ll stack them in the hallway.   The upstairs is unbearable this time of year. There’s little ventilation, and the air is thick, but the temperature doesn’t seem to bother Bruce when he’s on a mission. He drips sweat, but smiles.

He’s already scoped out the apple orchards, anticipating the exact moment of perfect ripeness.  He has marked his internal calendar with the date for harvesting.   The weather should be cooler then, and with four of us working, gathering fifteen to twenty bushels of Stamen or Winesap  apples will only take most of an afternoon.  Of course, we’ll have to clean out the bed of the pick up truck before we leave so the wooden apple crates will slide in side by side until there’s no more room. After the bed is full, we stack them.  Four of us no longer fit in the cab of the truck, so we’ll have to leave room for Ryan on the back.  He’s the smallest.

Picking the apples is the fun part.  I can sneak away, pull out my camera, take photos of the knotty trees, their branches hanging low with rust colored fruit.  I catch Ryan in the act of throwing an apple at his brother’s back and Ben’s scowl when he turns.  Bruce laughs, half an apple in his hand, juice running off his chin. He wipes it with the sleeve of his shirt.   He admonishes, “Get back to work.  We’ll never get finished at this rate.”

In the week prior to the big day, peeling coring and slicing ensues.  The basement of my in-law’s house boasts an assembly line of apple preparation.  Wooden orchard crates filled with a combination of winesaps and stamen line the floor.  Hand crank peelers and corers are clamped to tables. I can close my eyes and hear the sounds,  the snap of apple skin breaking, the whir of the blade spiraling through the apple as juice runs, the plunk of cores landing in five gallon plastic buckets, the murmur of voices remembering generations of tradition passed down.

“My Mama used this same knife. It has a nice curve to the blade, perfect for the shape of an apple.  Her hands were small, like mine.”

“Your Granddaddy took the peelings and a little bit of cider vinegar and scrubbed the inside of the apple butter kettle with them every year.  He worked that mixture around until the inside of the kettle shined like a new penny.”

“We weren’t choosy about what kind of apples we used way back then.  We used what we could find and pick up under the trees.  No difference in taste as far as I can see.  That mix years ago might have even been a bit better than what we make today.”

“My hand is tired, can I go watch tv now?”

“Of course you can, this work is hard on a little fella.”

I want to join the little fella, my back and shoulders are tired, the apple skins have stained my hands and I’m sticky from my fingers to my elbows.  There are ten full boxes left.  What are we going to do with all this apple butter?   I’m content with one or two jars a season. Not Bruce, he’s content with no less than a farm table full of quart and pint jars.

 My mother-in-law forgoes the fancy machines for a sharp paring knife. She has a rhythm to her peeling and the wooden handle of the knife feels familiar to her hand.  Her peelings are skin thin and spiral into the bucket in one long piece.  These along with the cores, stems and seeds are treats for the cows.  

  Apples are sliced thin and the raw pieces are put in plastic bags in a cool corner of the room.  The night before we make the apple butter, they’ll be washed.  We will cook on Saturday.  By Friday night there are six or seven, thirty-gallon plastic bags of apples, waiting.

Apple butter making starts early.  The fire is built under the pot at four o’clock in the morning.  It’s dark and cold when we slip from between warm bed covers, put on clothes in layers and drive the three miles to my in-law’s farm.  The firewood is stacked on the trailer behind our pickup. The jars and metal rings, clean and shiny, are packed in boxes. New rubber ringed lids are the  only things we haven’t recycled. They are new.  A wash tub holds five pound sacks of sugar, tiny bottles of cinnamon and clove oil, a jug of apple cider, canning funnels, long handled wooden spoons, metal dippers and some clean dish towels.  Ryan, who’s been excited all week about the event, grumbles and mumbles as he drags himself out of the truck and into one of Grandma’s extra beds until after sunrise.

The men heft the forty gallon copper apple butter kettle into the cast iron stand, pour in the jug of cider, add one plastic bag of apples and build a fire under the kettle.  The apples must be stirred non-stop from beginning to end, otherwise they stick to the kettle and burn.

The wooden stir paddle is old, fashioned by hand out of pine with wooden pegs holding it together.  It’s been passed down through generations, repaired as necessary, and stored across the rafters in the attic for safe keeping between apple butter makings.   The handle is eight feet long, the paddle attached to its end at a ninety degree angle is two feet long, one inch thick.  It is a flat, bowling pin shaped piece of wood with holes drilled through to allow the apple butter passage.  The corners at the bottom of the paddle are rounded to conform to the sides of the kettle.  Stirring “twice around the outside and through the middle once” keeps the apple butter from sticking.   Some people drop three or four pennies into the pot.  Tradition says it keeps the butter from sticking, or brings good luck. 

Bruce’s Daddy doesn’t believe in using pennies.  “It scratches the copper finish on the pot,” he says.  “Besides, pennies are dirty.”

People come and go all day long, relatives, neighbors, and some townsfolk who’ve gotten wind of the event.  Even a few dogs drop by to see what’s going on.  They are apt to lie in a spot of sun, dozing.  Some of the older men do the same thing.  Visitors take turns stirring, along with members of the family, while others sit around on apple boxes or stumps and tell stories.  Everyone has a different recipe or way of making apple butter.  Each family adheres to its own set of rules and ingredients. 

The women spend the day keeping the stirrers fed.  No one comes in to eat at the kitchen table.  Food is set up outdoors, drinks and sweet tea are kept cold in coolers.  If the men really wanted to help prepare the food they could. There’s no rule, it’s just that men tend to stay as far away from the house and as close to the kettle as they can.  Men say they don’t gossip, but tractors, farmland and machinery carry secrets. Women know.

Bruce’s Daddy makes the decisions about when to add more apples as the others “cook down”, when to season the apple butter, and when it’s thick enough to pull the fire out.  It has to pass the spoon and plate test.  If it doesn’t run when you tilt the plate or spoon, it’s ready. Somewhere close to five o’clock in the evening, the apple butter is thick and dark enough to put in jars. 

It is ladled into large pots at the kettle and brought to the basement for jarring.  The lids are already immersed in boiling water and the jars have been “hotted.”  Bruce’s Mama pours boiling water from the kettle over them. The water is emptied from the jars and apple butter is funneled into them.  A  lid is removed from the pot of boiling water, placed on top of the jar,  and the ring is screwed on tight.  The full Mason jar gets a swift wipe with the dishcloth and is set on the farm table to seal.  When every bit of the apple butter is jarred there is about twenty gallons (all quart and pint jars).  After the clean up, we sit around the woodstove in the basement and listen to the “pop” of the jars as they seal.  The jars are divided evenly between the workers.  We usually consume two to three quarts during a winter.  The other twenty-odd jars are given as gifts. 

I walked out onto the porch today, watering can in hand, giving my geraniums a drink.  I heard the familiar crack and thunk of wood being split.   It’s the fifth of September.  Apples are hanging on the trees up the road and Bruce is getting ready.  Three miles to the east of us, his Daddy is standing in the shed eyeing the copper kettle.  He’s expecting a phone call in the next week or so.  Tradition demands it.

Teens Give-A Program for At Risk Youth

April 18, 2010

       Jack is fifteen years old. He’s a freshman in high school.  His increased height and deeper voice have pushed him beyond the curse words of his childhood, the small ones no one in his house noticed. He has moved onto “GD” and “MF,” the words of the men he sees on his street.   These words bring ire from adults and respect from his peers.  He is still a boy , but wants to be an adult. Grownups get to make the rules.

     He wants to be a man. His mother reminds him that he’s the “man of the house” even though he has no idea what one of those is supposed to look or act like.  His father, the man who impregnated his mother, has never shown up for any family activity or event, neither have the fathers of his siblings.  Jack’s mother makes minimum wage and has four children to support.  She works long hours.

     She tells Jack, “Man up, boy.  You need to take some responsibility around here, look after your brother and sisters, make sure they’re fed at dinner time, keep them out of trouble.” She wants him to take charge until she comes home at night to sleep. That’s what she does, works and sleeps.  In the morning, the drudgery of her life starts all over again. 

     Jack has a hard time staying at home, keeping his siblings from fighting, keeping them fed. They yell at him, “You’re not my Daddy. You can’t tell me what to do. Only Mama can tell me what to do.”

      His little brother and sisters really do need a father, and he isn’t one. They are his mother’s problem, not his.  He slams out of the house, leaving them to scoop their own peanut butter and jelly on stale bread, to turn the tv to channels they shouldn’t watch and play in the street, avoiding cars as best they can.

     Jack leaves the house to hang out with his friends, Tony, Mike and RJ.  These boys have things in common, they have mothers, but no fathers, they have poor grades, truancy, and baggy clothing.  They wear their hats sideways and don’t tie their shoes.  People passing by, don’t make eye contact and shake their heads, wondering if these boys were ever taught how to tie their shoes. The four friends stand together on the street corner, laughing and talking.

      In a report on a bureaucrat’s  desk in City Hall, these boys have a label– “at risk youth.”  Something has to be done about them and their kind, but funding cuts are making that much more difficult.  These children haven’t gotten in trouble…yet.  Trouble will find them though, if they don’t find it first.  These boys have an increased chance of dropping out of school, getting involved in gang activity, drug use and distribution, and crime.  The city has one year to try to make a difference in the lives of these fifteen year olds.  They can drop out of school at sixteen.

    Funding cuts are all around us, locally, statewide and nationally. The economy tanked and when that happened, people started saving, stopped spending and philanthropists began scoping out their list of charities more closely. Funding sources from state and government have dried up or gone to other, more important projects. The less affluent of those in our community suffered more than most, and still do. 

     For twenty one years, Teens Give has affected positive change in Charlottesville. The program does this by giving at-risk youth a constructive outlet for their energies.  Teens Give teaches pre-vocational and employment skills to young people who might otherwise be involved in negative activity.  These youth would be last in line for jobs without the training they receive through Teens Give. Not only do these children receive skill building services, they are able to positively influence change in their community through volunteering. 

     Teens Give volunteers provide service in daycare centers, the SPCA, after school programs, Parks and Recreation, and nursing homes.  Teens Give has provided volunteers for our nursing home for twenty one years.  At 100 hours monthly, that’s over 24,000 hours of community service.  In real dollar amounts at minimum wage, Teens Give volunteers have contributed $123,600 worth of service to our elders in those twenty one years.

     Many nursing home residents suffer from an epidemic of loneliness, helplessness and boredom.  If we examine the lives of our at-risk youth, many suffer from the same plagues.  Elders need to feel that they are making a difference, giving something worthwhile to their community, sharing wisdom with someone who cares to hear it.  Add children who need mentors, someone to assist with activities, and boredom is alleviated for both groups. Elders teach, youngsters learn, it’s a win/win situation. 

     Teens Give has been receiving their major funding from the VJCCCA—the Virginia Community Crime Control Act.  $75,000 has been taken from Teens Give as a result of funding cuts.  This in itself seems a crime, a theft of services taken from one of our communities’ most vulnerable populations. Imagine for a moment how it affects Jack. He’s not offered a program and is most likely still standing on that street corner, hanging out, maybe planning to venture toward a gang family.  In less than five years, the community is possibly looking at paying $25,000 or more per year to house Jack in prison. 

      Now, let’s imagine that Jack has been referred to the Teens Give program.  Part of his educational curriculum is a half day of English, Math, and History, the credits of which, along with his community service hours,  will give him a general high school diploma.  The other half of his day is spent in the Teens Give service learning program.

      Jack’s training begins at the Teens Give offices.  He and his peers undergo an  orientation that involves learning basic interpersonal skills, how to shake someone’s hand, make eye contact, smile, engage in pleasant conversation.  They learn anger management and constructive ways to problem solve.  Staff on site recognize difficulties and refer children in the program for tutoring, mentoring, life skills training, counseling and other support services.

     Jack expresses to the Teens Give staff an interest in working with elders.  He and his grandmother were close.  She died last year and he misses her.  Jack is assigned to volunteer at our nursing home.

     Jack and a staff member take on the project of the facility snack cart.  They organize and count inventory, stock the cart, list needs, take the cart room to room and Jack learns how to interact with elders, make change during transactions in buying and selling.  Residents smile at Jack and he smiles back.       

      Over time, relationships develop, residents look forward to seeing the young man and as he takes the cart around.  Jack doesn’t miss stopping by certain rooms like 103.

     “How are you Mrs. Smith?” Jack inquires.

     “Pretty good, the hip’s getting better. I walked a few steps with therapy today.”

     “That’s great.  Has your daughter been by lately. I know you were saying you hadn’t seen her in a while.”

     “She live in Northern Virginia, only gets here about once a month. I miss her.”

     Jack sits down in the empty chair in Mrs. Smith’s room and they chat.  Mrs. Smith is a little less lonely and Jack has brightened her day.  He knows that his presence makes a difference, affects someone’s quality of life.  He feels like a grandson.  He hasn’t felt that since his grandmother passed away.

     Jack has a history project due the next week.  He doesn’t know much about World War II.  Anyone in his family who might have remembered isn’t around anymore and Jack doesn’t have a computer at home to do research.  He’s never been to the public library.  His Teens Give counselor calls the nursing home to see if there’s a resident there who could talk with Jack about the war.

      Mr. Jones was in the Normandy Invasion during World War II.  It’s his favorite topic of conversation.   He’s ninety-four years old and doesn’t remember where he lives or what day it is.  He doesn’t know the current President or anything about the war in Iraq.  He does know his World War II history though and has volumes of stories to tell.

“We were scared, you know,” Mr. Jones tells Jack.  “We were young, not much older than you, and we knew some of us wouldn’t come home again.”

“Did you lose friends?” Jack asks.

“Son, I lost more friends than I could count.  Boys didn’t die by the ones or twos, they died by the twenty-fives and thirties.  I was one of the few lucky ones. I didn’t get a scratch.”

“I bet you were glad.” Jack says.

“Naw, son, I felt really bad for a long time.  I didn’t know why God decided that I should live and all those other boys should die.  It made me think, you know?”

“Made you think?” Jack repeats, not quite understanding.

“Made me think that what I have to do here must be important,  that my life needed to have a purpose, so that all those other boys didn’t lose their lives for no reason.  That make sense?”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Jack says.

Mr. Jones goes on to talk about the landing craft, the types of guns they used, battle tactics and strategy.  He gives Jack a true firsthand account of the event.  There’s an “A” under Jack’s belt for History class.  He leaves the facility knowing more about the history of his country and that he’s listened to someone’s own story of the event.  He’s made another positive difference in someone’s life.  He returns to Teens Give for their weekly reflection activity.  He talks about his experience to his counselors and peers.  He’s recognized for his contribution and offers support to a peer who’s having difficulty connecting with someone at his service site.

This is one example of how Teens Give affects the lives of members of the Charlottesville community.  There are countless other stories similar to this one. Stories of how this program puts teens on the right track to be productive members of their community. 

     What do we want for Jack?  Where do we want to find him in five years?  Take a drive through our city and notice how many of our youth are standing on street corners, on the cusp of leaning in the wrong direction.  Gangs seek them out, find them, and put them to work on a path of violence and eventually prison.  Is that where we want our future?  Is that what we want for Jack and other children like him?  Without Teens Give we will lose many and the cost will far surpass the amount of funding needed to keep this program running.

     We are asking for your help in keeping this vital community program alive in Charlottesville.  Obviously it works. It has for twenty one years.  Many of the Teens Give volunteers have gone on to win local, state and even national awards for their service.  Their futures have held high school diplomas, college, jobs, functional family lives and many have returned to mentor others. 

     Community Attention is the umbrella agency under which Teens Give exists. Heather Kellums is the Teens Give Coordinator in Charlottesville. Please contact her for more information and to learn about supporting this vital program in our area.

Build a Green House, They Will Come

January 11, 2010

Our community needs a Green House. Not one for gardening, but one for growing the lives and minds of frail, dependent, elders. One that promotes cultivation of people in a warm environment. Currently, too many of our seniors with physical and cognitive challenges are planted in cold warehouses.

Two of my grandparents died in nursing homes. They had no choice. My grandfather had a massive stroke, lost the use of one whole side of his body, his speech, and his ability to control bladder and bowel.  Days spent in a wheelchair, dribbling food and drink from the corner of his mouth, trying to speak with his eyes alone, made my grandfather the saddest person in my life.  I visited and tried to bring a little light back into his existence, but failed in my attempts. I always left him, crying. A lifetime of fly fishing for trout, growing Beefsteak tomatoes in his garden and building homes from the ground up, only played as old movies in his head.  No one in the nursing home talked to him about his life; no one knew; no one cared to know.

My Grandmother lost her mind to dementia.  She didn’t recognize me.  Looking through me, she mumbled words that made no sense to either of us.  She dressed in backward layers and searched for home.  In her day, she raised five children, cooked meals that fed not only her own family, but others in the neighborhood who were hungry.  She pieced quilts to keep those she loved warm, and braided my long hair while telling me stories of her childhood.  To the staff in the nursing home, she was a wrinkled body that had to be fed, bathed, and chased down the hallway because she wandered, looking for purpose.

When my great-grandparents were elderly and unable to live alone, they spent six week intervals with each of their nine children. When the elders visited, they helped as much as they could with cooking, cleaning, watching the children, doing yard work and small repair jobs around the house.  When they were no longer able to be of assistance in a physical way, they used their knowledge to share recipes and gardening hints. They rested in rocking chairs, and at the end, took to the bed until it was time to ‘go home.’  Family gathered at the bedside, caring for basic needs and listening to last stories. When God and others before them called, this generation was sent to the next life surrounded by love.  Nursing homes didn’t exist.

In the 1960’s family units began to change. Women worked outside the home and children no longer lived in close proximity to their parents.  Something had to be done with Mom and Dad when age took their bodies or minds.  As elders became unsafe in their own homes—leaving pots on the stove, wandering winter streets at night with no shoes, forgetting to eat—families, children, and communities, needed a ’safe’ place.  There was no model.

The early architects of nursing homes looked to the hospital as their model.  Semi-private rooms, long halls, starched staff, polished tile, stainless steel, and shiny linoleum suddenly became ‘home.’  Kitchens were placed far away from living quarters. No one’s mouth watered from the smell of baking biscuits. Laundry swished and swirled in industrial machines and came delivered in folded stacks, with a scent of Clorox. Baths, meals, therapy, activities and laxatives came on a set schedule. For the sake of safety, doors locked, walking discontinued, bodies with weak legs were tied down and when voices rebelled, chemicals in the form of antipsychotic pills hushed them. In caring for elders, quality of life was sacrificed. Staff ‘cared’ the life right out of the wisest ones.

During a visit to the ‘home,’ visitors met with scenes of drooped heads, drooling mouths, calls for “help” and “bring me a pair of scissors to cut this strap.”  Bingo was the only activity that promised a surprise ending in a long and tedious day. Elders didn’t have a say in their care. Their feelings and knowledge were ignored.  They suffered alone in a building filled with people rushing about, or vegetating.

Laws in 1987 tried to regulate care, bringing rights to nursing home residents. It’s a sad commentary on a society that has to pass laws to protect its eldest citizens.  Each of us has these civil liberties—we are born with them, but because of rampant abuse and neglect, Congress passed a ‘Nursing Home Bill of Rights.’  Included in this mandate were the following rights:

  • to be treated with respect and dignity;
  • to receive care, treatment, medicines, and services in compliance with laws;
  • to be free from mental and physical abuse, restraints;
  • to open and read one’s own mail, have access to a telephone, and writing materials;
  • to manage financial affairs;
  • to enjoy privacy in one’s own room,  with a spouse and for the couple to share a room;
  • not to be expected to work for room and board;
  • to have personal belongings.

We, as youthful humans, take for granted and expect these rights. We become outraged if these freedoms are yanked from us.  In 1987, fundamental human rights had to be spelled out and enforced in nursing homes. Legislators developed a three inch thick ream of rules to regulate care facility practice. Nursing homes became the second most regulated industry in the United States behind nuclear power plants. Twenty two years later, there is change, but not nearly enough.

The medical model still exists.  Nursing home residents continue to suffer from loneliness, helplessness and boredom.  Institutions are large and every room, every hallway, looks the same.  Breakfast sits on the plate in a yellow mound. Lunch and dinner are ground into unrecognizable meats and vegetables. Sliced bread is the only piece of normalcy on the plate. There are few spontaneous activities, while choices are limited.

Elders are no longer tied down or given  pills to shut them up, but body alarms have taken the place of restraints.  If someone chooses to rise from a wheelchair and their legs refuse to hold them up, a screeching alarm alerts staff.  In most cases, the noise startles the elder into moving too quickly, and they sprawl on the floor anyway.  As soon as most residents arrive, they are presented with wheelchairs.  The halls in the building are long and the walk to the dining room for meals is quite a hike for arthritic bones. Loss of mobility comes quickly. Loss of self comes even faster. A person’s diagnosis becomes his name, his disability, a nickname, his frustration, and a staff member’s annoyance.


“There’s a new admission in 208, he’s a fractured hip, a feeder, and a screamer at night.”


Not all facilities are warehouses for broken, old people.  A reform movement called ‘Culture Change’ is making some progress.   It’s slow in coming, but all needed change seems to crawl when it should sprint. The main principle of culture change is person centered care.  Individuals in these homes are encouraged to thrive in a community environment, not decline. ‘Home’ becomes the operative word, not the residence that each person remembers, but closer than the institutions that exist today.

A social model replaces the medical one. Each resident’s room reflects her personality. Family photographs and artwork recognizable to the individual decorate the walls. Familiar furniture, a favorite chair, a vanity with a dresser set, and a four poster bed with a soft mattress make life more livable.  Memory books, with cards and notes from children and grandchildren, stories from the past, and love letters from a spouse provide comfort. Residents choose when they wake, when they want to rest, what foods they wish to eat, and when they bathe.  Staff members have consistent assignments—they learn the history, interests, likes and dislikes of the elders in their care.  More importantly, the elders recognize their caregivers and relationships develop. Nursing assistants begin to understand that care is not the physical act of bathing and dressing, cleaning and making beds. Care is about the individual, and helping to make her life worth living.

“Clara helps me get dressed for the day, then we can sit and talk a few minutes about the red bird couple visiting my bird feeder this morning,” says Joan, a recipient of culture change care.

Unfortunately, the rules that came in the 1980’s, designed to protect and care for elders, have discouraged a rapid jump into culture change.  Administrators and Healthcare companies are fearful of the new direction. Regulations are strictly enforced and severe monetary penalties are imposed for noncompliance. ‘Infection control’, limits family style dining, homemade foods brought in by the community, and the adoption of pets.  Medical care and treatment still supersedes a resident’s right to eat and drink what he enjoys, or have a peaceful night’s sleep without being awakened for turning, positioning, and care needs.


“I’m 96 years old. Sure I have diabetes, but I’d rather die from the sugar in a Hershey Bar than die from wanting one,” says Earl, a three year resident in a care facility.


Staff are so concerned with documenting care , that they don’t have the time to deliver it in a way that makes the resident feel like an individual.

“If services are not documented, they did not occur.” This statement comes directly from a State inspector.

“Get it done, write it down,  that’s what I have to do in eight hours with a caseload of ten residents,” says an overworked C N A. This rushed approach leaves the elder feeling like a piece of furniture to be dusted or a wilted plant needing water.

A forerunner of the Culture Change movement is The Eden Alternative.  It’s a small not-for-profit organization which is turning eldercare on its gray head.  This organization embraces the belief that aging is a stage of development and a person can continue to grow well into the age of elder-hood.  The Eden Alternative has developed new models for housing those in our society who are frail and dependent on others for care.  These communities are called ‘Green Houses’. They promote growth in their inhabitants.  When an alternative Green House is built, instead of an institutional design with long foreboding hallways, smaller, residential housing units are organized.  Each unit houses no more than ten private bedrooms with private baths.  The rooms have doors that open to a short hall or a great room. Each house has its own kitchen, dining room, laundry, front porch, mailbox, backyard with grass, bird feeders, a cat or a dog, and a garden.  There are upwards of fifteen units in a Green House community. Each house has ten elders, and a family of care staff.  Residents can assist as they are able with meal preparation, cleaning, laundry, gardening, pet care—all activities they would normally participate in at home. Recreational pastimes, calendared events, interests and hobbies are pursued with passion or not, depending upon the likes of each individual. Elders feel needed, valued and activities are meaningful. Each house is run separately from the others.  Each small community within the larger, is autonomous.

Where are the nurses?  Where are the administrators, social workers, business office personnel, maintenance workers, housekeepers, and dietitians?  This innovative living concept does away with some positions. Those that are necessary, are housed in a separate unit within the confines of the community. Care staff in the Green Houses are cross trained to provide personal care. Staff cook, clean, assist with activities, budget household expenses and shop for needs.  There is one ‘Administrative Building’, which houses offices and the nursing staff.  Nurses travel from house to house like home health workers. They come at a specific time, provide medications and treatments, then leave. The housekeeper comes once or twice a week for deep cleaning, and the bed and bath linens are taken to a separate building for washing. They are delivered back to the house when clean, reminding elders of the old time laundry services.  Personal laundry is washed, dried, folded, and ironed in each house with the assistance of the residents.  The elders rule their homes. They plan meals, celebrations, spur of the moment ice cream making, trips to the store, or poker nights.

Green Houses in existence have waiting lists. The concept is innovative and studies show that elders thrive in these communities.  Costs are lower, staffing needs are less, and quality time between elders and caregivers increases. With the Baby Boomer population reaching retirement age, society needs a new and better way to care for those who will be unable to care for themselves in the near future.

In a prime example, the City of Charlottesville prides itself on being a mecca for retirees.  Cultural, educational, medical and community based services for seniors abound in this city.  Yet, when a certificate of need is granted for an eldercare facility, an old medical model nursing home is built.  Isn’t it time that we, as an innovative community, take the reigns in the Culture Change movement.  Shouldn’t we set the example of improved quality of life for our frail elders?  Shouldn’t we make the difference before we are placed in a medical model facility and wish we had done something about care when we had the ability?

Fog on Afton Mountain

January 5, 2010

Afton Mountain is deceptive. When the sun shines, there’s a clear view of Rockfish Valley on the eastern side. Cars become matchbox miniatures and vineyard rows look like fresh rake marks in dirt. Sometimes, visibility is so sharp that individual leaves on the trees wave to the passerby. On the western slope, the Shenandoah Valley spreads out rolling, slopes touching clouds, and dipping into ravines—a haphazard blanket over a bed of sleeping dogs.

When it’s a gray day, and water droplets weigh down the pockets of the clouds, Afton Mountain is ominous. Fog rests in tree tops and filters down before sprawling on the highway,  like a ghost with arms outstretched, quietly gathering up guardrails, warning signs, tail lights, cars, and whole tractor trailers in its mist. People become confused. Airplane pilots lose their visual bearings and travelers on Afton lose direction, front-to-back, side-to-side. It seems they drift alone and a silence takes over. The fog can kill.

In April 1992, sixty cars skidded then piled up on the mountain, claiming two lives. In April 1998, sixty-five drivers succumbed to the same fate; forty people were hospitalized. Three weeks later, eighteen cars collided in a chain reaction. When Afton Mountain hides under cloud, a dangerous game of hide and seek ensues. It’s best not to be tagged. Stay at home when rain threatens.