When free food fails

Janelle Cammenga–Staff Writer


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As I sit in an air-conditioned mini bus on a Sunday afternoon and wait for the others to arrive, I can’t help but think. (But then again, I don’t know how to work the radio on this vehicle, so it’s not like I have other options.)

I’m here because I’m carrying on a tradition: taking a group of students to sing hymns at Royale Meadows, the Sioux Center nursing home.



Ten minutes from now, a few regulars will clamber through the open doors, we’ll head over, have a quick prayer, then get ready to sing.

The minute we walk into the nursing home’s dining room, residents will look up from their dinners and whisper “It’s the Sunday Singers!” You can tell they look forward to this, since they have us on their event calendar—and you can bet they notice when we miss a week. It’s a rare Sunday that I don’t get a firm hand-holding with a desperate, “Please come back again. Please.”

“You couldn’t keep us away if you tried,” is my usual answer.

And I wish that was the case. But, getting people to sing at the nursing home is like trying to assemble a 16-person tent without an instruction manual. Or poles. Or stakes. And this is what I’m afraid will kill this tradition.

I’ve tried every argument in the “How to recruit college students” handbook: It’s only an hour, guys, seriously. (No can do.) You don’t even have to talk to them afterward; you can just sing and skedaddle. (Still no.) I. Will. Feed. You. I have a freaking lasagna in the freezer. (Can I just come for dinner?) No!

When people don’t even come for the free food, something must be going on. The thing I most often hear is, “I’m afraid of old people.”

Why? They’re just human beings. They don’t care if you sing off-key. They don’t care if your voice cracks in the middle of a phrase, or if you stand awkwardly at their table in silence because you ran out of good questions. And, they definitely don’t care if you answer the same three questions every week. They just love the fact that you came, and they’re happy to see you.

Dementiastock.comElderly people are not only kind, but also valuable, and they should be treated as such. Their years of experience have taught them many things that would be worth the effort to learn. I met a man named Joe at Royale Meadows who used to grow rubber trees in South Africa, and another man who was a prisoner of war in WWII. He’ll tell you about it if you ask; sometimes even if you don’t ask. In nursing homes, there are many great stories just waiting to be uncovered.

Part of the the problem is that America’s culture is different than places like Japan, children are taught to respect and appreciate their elders. In China, not caring for your aging relatives is actually against the law.

Rather, our TV shows often stereotype older characters as being doddering and confused. And, if they’re not a burden, then they’re seen as a nuisance. Think of Grandpa in The Simpson’s, or Ray’s parents in Everybody Loves Raymond.

Living arrangements may also be to blame. While Japanese and Chinese grandparents often live with their children, almost 1/3 of elderly Americans live alone, and about 5% live in nursing homes. The less interaction you have with someone, the more uncomfortable you will be around them, so I suppose this gap between generations makes sense.But, just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that it has to continue. Guess what: someday, you’re going to be an old person. Treat your elders with the love, kindness and respect you want someday.

Whatever you do, whether it’s singing hymns or otherwise, break out of your comfort zone. Visit someone in a nursing home. Be the bright spot in their week. Sometimes, all it takes is a hand on a shoulder, a kind word, a smile. You don’t have to stay for hours at a time; just show them you care.

Does that sound easy? Good. Because it is. And, it only gets easier with practice.

And with that, students have started filing into my bus. I see some new faces this week, and that gives me great hope. Most people try it once and don’t return, but maybe, just maybe, these will stick around.



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