The Carbondale (AARP) Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI) works to help make Carbondale friendlier for people of all ages. Sue Zislis, a retired physical therapist, is a member of Senior Matters’ Board of Directors and CAFCI’s steering committee. Promoting Universal Design principles has been a rewarding part of her career. –Ron Kokish for CAFCI
Mom’s stamina, sure-footedness and confidence for planning outings had been steadily declining for years. However, her expectations for, and insistence upon, participation in a fully engaged life remained robust. When she was able to pull herself together, step out into the world and participate, she beamed with the pride of accomplishment. There was palpable exhilaration when she could make it happen. She could still stand tall, walk and enjoy an outing as long as there were plenty of places to sit and rest along the way. She never wasted an opportunity to stop and regroup. If there weren’t enough benches, she would sometimes abruptly cut the outing short. The decision was non-negotiable and often accompanied by a public display of crankiness. Dammit, right now she needs to go home and put her feet up. The abrupt change from beaming grandma to grumpy old lady seemed rooted in a devastating realization. She saw that her ability to live the life she still desperately wanted was clearly waning.
Some years ago, mom planned to visit us for the first time since we had moved away. She made no secret of how much she missed us and was excited to tour our new community. Flowers were blooming, weather was ideal, kids were on spring break and I was determined that mom’s rare visit wouldn’t be limited to our safely accessible home. In the weeks before her arrival, I took the kids on field trips to pre-rate sites for grandma-worthiness. It was unanimous. The zoo was perfect, with creative enclosures, unique gardens, rescued animals and a kitschy ice cream shop at the far end. We knew she would LOVE this outdoor day with the grandkids, except for one itty-bitty issue. There were hardly any benches in the right places. Most were by junk food vendors and trash cans. These benches were more enticing to flies and wasps than hot, tired grandmas. Few benches were in the shade. Zero benches were along the paths that might be most challenging for a huffing, puffing grandma working hard to reach Monkey Village atop a sunny hill. Apparently, a bench near a vendor was the primary criterion for placement. So, benches were present, but not many were functional for our purposes.
Exhausted, elated and showing off her new walking shoes, mom arrived on the eagerly anticipated day. With a broad smile, she gave generous hugs to all who would hold still. She ooh-ed and ahh-ed over our home. Mom unpacked multiple, beautifully-wrapped gifts for everyone. And then she saw it, parked in a corner of the living room, my solution to the bench problem: a rented wheelchair. The color instantly drained from her happy grandma face. She was crushed, angry, offended; aghast that I apparently thought she was… “handicapped.” Mom was not a crier. In my lifetime, I had seen her cry only a few, very memorable times. But right there in my living room, standing over a mountain of gifts, mom turned her back toward me and sobbed with profound sadness. I heard myself screaming inside my own head “OH, my kingdom for a few benches in the right places, DAMMIT.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four persons has some kind of disability. With ever-larger proportions of our population becoming older adults, those numbers are likely to increase. Quality of life is often impacted in such a way that safe, independent mobility is a challenge, just as it was for mom. For her, like for so many others, community mobility was not just a functional issue, but an issue of self-esteem and overall well-being. Think you don’t need to worry about such “special needs”? Do you plan to stay engaged in this community as you age? Might anyone in your family ever be advised to go walking to help recover from illness or injury? Do you sometimes have out-of-town guests who struggle with altitude adjustment and hotter-than-average weather? All these folks can have more confidence and challenge themselves to participate in community life when they know there is an occasional, predictable place to sit and rest. Well-placed benches send a message that our town acknowledges the vast diversity of abilities among its residents and guests. Each bench has an intangible placard: “It’s ok. You are welcome here. We’ve got your back.” What a fabulous gesture of goodwill. That person with either a temporary or a permanent disability is a person first. A person like mom, most of whose needs are no different from yours: namely, the need for social interaction, respect and access to community resources that enable engagement.
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI)