Lunchroom Drama at Calusa Elementary!

Our Lunchlady (Artist’s Rendition)

Do you know, I can vividly remember the first time I was ever treated like an adult?

The story starts in sixth grade at Calusa Elementary. This was back in the days (geez I’m old) when sixth graders were still in elementary school – you went to “Junior High” after that. Anyway, we had a crisis in the lunchroom. The oppressive lunch lady didn’t like how loud it generally was, and would constantly turn out the lights on us. When the lights were out, you had to be absolutely quiet. I’d say we ate about half our lunches in the dark.

As a duly elected member of the student council, I decided to do something about this. I met with the lunch lady and arrangements were made for a chart to go up on the wall. Every lunchtime, if we kept our voices at a reasonable volume, we would get a sticker on the chart. I know that sounds incredibly nerdy, but I was strictly a businessman: every time we filled up a row on the chart, the lunch lady had to give us free ice cream.

Milton knows how to play his radio at a reasonable volume

The chart was a huge success and everybody won. The lunch lady got a quieter lunchroom, we didn’t have to eat in the dark as often, and we got free ice cream (complete with miniature wooden spoon) to boot.

The story ends with me graduating and moving on, but not before leaving a brand new chart in place for next year. We lived right across the street from the school, and I stopped in for a visit at some point the following year. I found, much to my chagrin, my chart was gone, and the vicious cycle of chaos and darkness had yet again erupted.

This honesty made 7th grade Steve really angry, and one of my former teachers talked it over with me. Here’s the point of this whole story: Something about this conversation with my former teacher was so different than any other conversation I had had with an adult up to that point. She honestly lamented with me why no one had been willing to spend the ounce of effort it would have taken to keep the program going. She even apologized for not taking it on herself. I can’t quite capture what was different about this conversation. It was the intangibles. She pulled up a chair and sat down with me. Not on the other side of a desk, but right next to me. And she looked relaxed, not like a teacher lecturing a student, but like two friends having coffee at Starbucks (which didn’t exist in 1986 — you bought Folger’s Crystals and made your own damn coffee at home — but stay with me!)

Reflecting on this today, I realized how critical it is that we capture some of this peer-to-peer conversational style in our nursing home visits. But it has to be genuine; from the heart. Do you know that salesman, that’s trying really really hard to convince you that he’s your best friend, but you’re just not buying it? Yes, you know that feeling. That’s not what we’re aiming for.

I’m really struggling to capture in words what it’s all about. It has to do with body language, vocal cues such as intonation, speech patterns, maybe more. (I’ve noticed that members of my family can usually tell when I am talking to them, without me saying their name. Just by the way I speak to them.) Likewise, I just know when I’m being treated like an adult, and when I’m being talked down to or patronized. Even from a young age, we are very attune to this. So are the elderly – perhaps even more so after 80 or 90 years of tuning up their senses.

If you honestly feel like you are a just a caregiver to our nursing home friends, or a provider of some kind of charitable service to them, or an adult talking to a child, they’ll pick up on it. They get plenty of that already, from their family members, some of whom think they are just old and crazy. Some staff members haven’t been educated in the importance of this, so they are guilty of the same thing. They might address the residents as “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Jones”, but their vocal cues give away that they believe they are talking to a child.

So, how do you accomplish this zen conversation I’ve been describing? I think the best advice I could give you would be the same advice your mom gave you when you went on your first date. Remember how terrified you were, and your mom said “Relax! Just be yourself!”.

Occasionally, the peer-to-peer style of communication doesn’t feel right. I’ve told you before about the man named Warren Bowshot that Allison and I used to visit. He was an accomplished Musician, Engineer, Veteran, World traveler. His friends called him “Buck”, but he was always Mr. Bowshot to us; we never felt comfortable calling him anything else. We addressed him with maybe an ounce of friendship and a pound of respect. But there have only been a few examples like this – in my general experience, nursing home residents respond best to being treated as peers.

Mr. Bowshot
Mr. Bowshot with one of the model ships he built.

I invite you today to scan your brain’s hard drive and think back to a time you were unexpectedly treated like a peer, and how that made you feel. If you can somehow capture some of those verbal and non-verbal cues and apply them at the nursing home, it will make your nursing home visits that much more transformative.

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