Senior Living in Isolation

Kirby Pines and Janice Wall

I felt a kindred spirit with Janice the first time we met, when she invited me to speak to the “Book Baggers” a few years ago.

I first met Janice Wall a couple of years ago when she invited me to speak to the “Book Baggers”—a wonderful book club at Kirby Pines LifeCare Community here in Memphis. There are often as many as 50 or more at their book club meetings. These are avid readers and make for a lively discussion. Janice is the organizer of the Book Baggers. She is also an amazing human, and I love having her as a friend.

Matters of the Heart

This week I read her wonderful memoir Matters of the Heart: A Journey of Loss and Encouragement, which she just published on May 16. Janice and her husband Glenn moved into an apartment at Kirby Pines a number of years ago, after Glenn received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually he was moved to “Job’s Way,” the memory loss section, while Janice stayed in their apartment in the independent living section. Sadly, during the pandemic, Janice isn’t allowed to visit him, which has been heartbreaking for both of them, but important for keeping him safe. But Janice didn’t just write about her journey with Glenn. Her book includes articles she wrote for “Matters of the Heart,” the monthly newsletter for members ages 60 and older at her church—White Station Church of Christ—between 2015 and 2019. Janice has a strong faith, and she is also blessed with friends and family who are supporting her every step of the way. She honors them in this book, which is also a tribute to her community at Kirby Pines. Here’s a short excerpt:

The path of this journey we are walking is filled with others walking along before us, next to us, and behind us. When we are in a place of joy, we can look around and enjoy the company of those who are also rejoicing. When we are in a troubling place, there are also those who are experiencing these times along with us. . . . It is such a comfort to have friends who have deep faith who are swimming the troubled waters, climbing the highest mountains, walking through the dark wilderness. They are my beacon of light, my guideposts, my light at the end of the tunnel.

The Pandemic

Kirby Pines is currently the only senior living facility in Memphis that has no reported cases of Covid_19. They are doing a great job to protect their residents. First of all, the medical wings of the facility (Alzheimer’s care unit and nursing home) are on lockdown. And the independent living section where the book club and writing group (and many other activities) happen has some great guidelines in place. As I drove onto the property, my temperature was checked at the guard gate. Residents are only allowed to have one visiting family member in their apartments at a time, and only for one hour. They can leave the property during the day, but if they spend a night away, they must self-quarantine in their apartment for 10 days upon returning.

Several of the members of the Book Baggers approached Janice about having a creative writing group, and she asked if I would lead it. I was honored. And then Covid hit. We kept pushing the meeting a month later and a month later, until we finally decided to have our first meeting this past Monday. This was a big step for me, as I have been mostly isolated since March. This would be the first time I would be with a group of people inside a building. At all. But I felt almost a “calling” to do this, and so I trust God to protect the people in the writing group and me.

Janice Wall introducing me at the beginning of our first writing group meeting.

For our first meeting this past Monday, they had spaced tables far apart in a large room, with only two residents at each table. The podium from which I would be speaking was at least six feet from the closest table. We didn’t wear masks in the room, but I did wear one upon entering the building, while walking around in the common areas, and while leaving the building. And tables and chairs (and my microphone) were all wiped down with disinfectant before and after our meeting.

Our First Creative Writing Group Meeting

Eighteen residents showed up for our first meeting—ranging in age from late 60s to 90s. Most everyone had emailed me a short bio and a few words about why they wanted to participate in a writing group. I was fascinated by the interesting lives they had lived and were continuing to live. Several had already published books, and quite a few were eager to write memoirs for their children and grandchildren.

After I gave a “craft talk” on several aspects of creative writing, we did a writing exercise. I asked them to write for ten minutes about anything they wanted to. I also gave them a prompt, which they could choose. It was “Life During Isolation.” Several wrote on this topic, and a couple of people read their writing aloud. I’ve received permission to share two of those. Remember that these are “flash essays”—first drafts written quickly with no editing. It’s the heart of what they are saying that matters.

“Isolation” by Flo Seward (Flo is in her 90s.)

Being totally isolated for ten days in my one-bedroom apartment of a very large retirement community was not easy. I had spent fifty days with my daughter sharing her lovely home in Germantown. I chose to do this as my three daughters thought it would be very dangerous to stay at Kirby Pines due to rapid spread of the corona virus, which was especially dangerous for the elderly.

“Mother, you have got to get out of there,” Kelly, my middle daughter advised me. She is a retired nurse and I respect her advice. Linda, my eldest, and Flo, my youngest, both agreed.

So in early February I packed a small suitcase with enough clothes and meds to last a couple of weeks. Little did I realize the virus would become a pandemic.

That’s Flo in the background, behind Marilyn and Sarah.

After reading this short draft, Flo went on to tell us that although she loved being with her daughter, she missed her friends at Kirby Pines and couldn’t wait to get back to them. Although it was tough spending ten days alone in isolation, upon returning, it was worth it to finally be reunited with the community she loves.

Flo Seward is the middle daughter of five girls born in Collierville, TN in the 1920s. After graduating from high school at age sixteen and junior college in the mountains of North Carolina, she returned to Memphis, married her high school sweetheart at eighteen, and had five children.  

“Surviving” by Sydney Wagner

Sitting on my balcony and realizing my view of a beautiful blooming magnolia tree across the way was maybe not enough. About that time my son called to check on me and asked if I needed anything. I immediately told him I was fine and needed nothing.  Hung up the phone, glanced at four empty pots on my balcony, grabbed the phone and called him back immediately and said, “I thought of something I need,” and he asked “what?” and I said “Flowers.”  He asked what kind and I said blooming, (with no other description) plus I would also like to have a fern.

The very next day my son and granddaughter called to tell me they are at the front door of Kirby Pine, with my plants. They are not allowed to come in so I meet them at the truck to get them and I am happy. Well, maybe not totally because one of the plants they brought was a Petunia and I have never cared for Petunias, but I had said “blooming,” so I graciously thanked them and hurried to plant them in my pots.

Not sure if it is just the virus that has made me appreciate many things more than I did formerly. I have always enjoyed my balcony but now time spent out there early mornings and late afternoons, enjoying reading and looking at my flowers, has made this my sanctuary, warming my heart and enriching my soul.  And that Petunia has produced a profuse amount of blooms. I regularly send pictures of my flowers to my children and just told them how God has surprised me with the beautiful Petunia and maybe—you guessed it—the Petunia is now my favorite flower.

Sydney at a table with Doris, writing their “isolation stories”

Sydney Wagner is a native of Dry Hill, Tennessee. She has published a cook book and a weekly newsletter for her Bible class while at Highland Street Church of Christ and again at Germantown Church of Christ until moving to Kirby Pines. With her sister she published two genealogy books. She wrote a short memoir for immediate family. Sydney lost her husband Shelton to Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s in 2019.

Writing Group Continues

Starting with our meeting in August, members of the writing group will be sending me manuscripts to be critiqued by the group. I will share them with the group through email ahead of the meeting so everyone can read them before coming to the meeting. We will use traditional “workshopping” tools to critique each writing sample. I’ve already received two for our next meeting, which isn’t until August 10. It’s so wonderful to see the enthusiasm these wonderful seniors have. I am so blessed to spend this time with them. Stay tuned for a post after next month’s meeting!

4 thoughts on “Senior Living in Isolation”

  1. Susan, you are so great, Everyone loved the first meeting. All of us are looking forward to seeing you in August. Stay safe!

    1. The pleasure is all mine, Janice! Five people have already send writing samples for next month’s meeting!

  2. A beautiful post. Thanks for sharing some of their stories and for all you are doing to bring more joy to the folks at Kirby Pines. I have a writers group and we are meeting with Zoom at the moment. Miss the face to face contact when we met at our local art center. The folks at Kirby Pines are lucky to have each other, a bright spot no matter what is happening in the world.
    The petunia story brought a few tears.

    1. Thanks Barbara. The Kibry Pines group are the only people I’m meeting with in person. I consider them my “bubble.” Such great people.

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