Special to the Tribune-Star
Although it has been nearly two months now, I can’t forget the few afternoon hours I spent on a hot June day this summer at a local “assisted living” facility in town. I had been asked to speak to a group of men there about Father’s Day, but for most part, the wonderful old guys who came to listen certainly made my day more memorable than I did theirs.
After we’d had our coffee and pie and introduced ourselves, I read a story about the “good old days,” and, perhaps, how they weren’t all that great. Our discussion soon involved cars and the weather, even presidents, and my longtime friend, Wendell Adams, who happens to live there, mentioned that Woodrow Wilson was in office when he was born. Wendell is more than a few days past 90, but even he had to take a back seat to fellow resident Elmo Bradley, who was about to turn 100; he was around when William Howard Taft was still in the White House.
Although Wendell and Elmo and the others in that room could have supplied me with more than enough information for a story, it wasn’t their remarkable lives that interested me as much as the labels so many of us — the “middle-aged” included — put on such folks. After meeting and talking with those “experienced” gentlemen, I’ll tell you this: We need to redefine what “assisted” living means.
This being a mean political season and all, I know I take a great chance in alienating readership if I lean one way or the other on the issues, but I want to make a point. President Obama recently stepped into hot water when he told a group in Roanoke, Va., that they alone had not started their own businesses. I have read the president’s comments in full context, and he said in virtually the same breath, “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
I couldn’t agree more, and to take the point a step further, I’d point out that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney told Winter Olympic athletes in Salt Lake City 10 years ago something along the same line. He said, “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters, or brothers encouraged your hopes. Coaches guided; communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches, and communities.”
We all are products of “assisted living,” and to think that we will never need it — nor ever had any help in what we will accomplish or have already done in life — is unrealistic. I have mentioned comments before from historian David McCullough, who once said there are “no self-made men,” but in these chest-thumping, “everybody-listen-to-me” times, many of us seem to be forgetting that.
My brother, John, hasn’t forgotten. As I work at a snail’s pace on a new book this summer, I have asked both John and my sister, Lora, to help me remember things from our childhoods. When I asked John about his first car — a rather sleek, two-tone 1958 Mercury Montego — he remembered that despite his best efforts to keep it running, the car finally gave up the ghost and he was left sorely in need of transportation. He was working, as I discovered years later, not only to buy a few of the things a teenager wanted, but also to help my parents out in tough economic times.
My dad found another very used car for my brother in Clinton, and my mom took John to see it. Like the Merc, the poor thing was pretty well worn out, too, and John knew he would probably be trading one bucket of troubles for another. But when my Mom told a salesman named Louie Rendaci at Mike’s Motors about how hard John was working, Louie told my brother that he shouldn’t buy that old car, but rather get a new one, a tan Plymouth Duster he had sitting on his lot.
“He asked how much money I had,” John told me, “then he left for a little while. When he came back, he told me that I was to go up the block to the Clinton State Bank and sign the papers for the car. I don’t know what he did, but the bank loaned me the money without any adult’s signature. It cost $297 down and $63 a month for three years.”
John told me that now, more than 40 years later, he still recalls what Louie did. “I still get a little emotional every time I think about what he did for me. He said that I worked hard and needed good transportation, and I deserved it. I never wanted to break the trust he put in me.”
Jeff Huxford hasn’t forgotten what assisted living is, either. A doctor of family medicine who now lives in northern Indiana, Jeff once sat in my classroom, his family dear friends of ours. In early April, Jeff’s pick-up truck was broadsided at a busy intersection only a few blocks from his home. He was airlifted to a Chicago hospital and, when stabilized, began a grueling and frustrating series of rehabilitations that now, four months later, have him back home with his wife and two children. He hopes to return to his medical practice soon.
Although Jeff has been gone from our little community for years now, many of his friends haven’t forgotten him. Knowing he would need to continue to pay bills and meet expenses, they organized a benefit dinner and silent auction at our local firehouse. Over 500 people came on a sweltering Saturday night to eat spaghetti, raising more than $10,000 for Jeff in those few short hours. Over the course of the toughest weeks of Jeff’s recovery, there were prayer vigils, T-shirt sales, and hundreds and hundreds of get-well cards and phone calls and visits. Jeff is a stubborn, hard-working young man, and I know much of what he has done he has done on his own, but he knows he’s had a lot of help, too.
“You don’t realize how many lives you’ve impacted, how many people you’ve helped in some small way, until something like this brings it back to you,” Jeff said. “So many people wanted to do something for me. It was humbling.”
We need to forget the notion that assisted living is just for “old folks.” We all have had it, and we all are in need of it.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his fourth book.