Ashley Keller

Ashley Keller is a fourth year biochemistry major and biology minor. She volunteers for Madison House Adopt-A-Grandparent program. She has been a Madison House blogger for over a year now and very much enjoys it. Ashley loves playing soccer, writing, running, singing, and playing the piano.

Posts from Ashley:

This week I was fortunate enough to attend the end-of-semester event at another AAGP site, Charlottesville Health and Rehab. The grandparents and volunteers had an ice cream social together and entertained questions about travel as a group while enjoying fudge swirled- ice cream with various sugary toppings. An administrative aid of Charlottesville H&R called out questions to the group like, “Who has been outside America?” We all contemplated our histories and replied by separately calling, “I’ve been to Europe!” or “I’ve been to Brazil!” or even, “Well I’ve been to Brooklyn.” A chuckle resounded, and the aid continued, “Alright, alright, fair enough. Where is the farthest place you have been then?” An eccentric, outspoken man with a sailor’s cap replied, “I’ve been to Charlottesville!” Everyone laughed, and the man continued with an encore song about the “sweet drinks out in Batesville and how, why, you must save me some.” We all clapped after each one of his performances (he sang encores several times throughout the social).

It was the first time I had been to Charlottesville Health and Rehab. It is a new building, and there are many open windows throughout that let in the nice glow of an early spring sun. The place seems very friendly with caring staff, who were very receptive and engaging towards us volunteers as well as the patients. I felt at ease among new faces and characters and tremendously enjoyed the atmosphere of a communal living setting. It is quite different from volunteering at someone’s home. There is an energy among the various grandparents, and they all seem to feed off of the eccentricities of each other in a type of familial way.

I truly enjoy just sitting back and listening as each grandparent talks a little about their life experiences, or even daily experiences. To me, the group question is irrelevant. Whether we are all trying to connect over places we’ve been or haven’t been to, the effort of communication is the same. The art of volunteering (and the art of Adopt-A-Grandparent as well) comes from having the patience to just listen to a stranger and expend the energy necessary to at least try to understand a small part of their life story. That way, the exchange (whether it be in a group or home setting) is made between two people who are only trying to chart the uncharted and understand through questions, answers, and simple observations, how we differ and how we are the same. It is remarkable how similar the very young, young, old, and very old all are.

This week when I visited Ellen she wasn’t feeling very well. Her back was hurting her, and she had trouble standing up and walking. I tried to help her as best I could, but she is independent and likes to do things herself. I respect that, but when a neighbor was at the door, it was just too much for Ellen to quickly stand up so I opened the door instead.

The neighbor was an elderly man (in his eighties) who was kindly dropping off an empty, washed popcorn bowl, thoughtfully filled with a jar of spaghetti sauce and two Java Twix bars in thanks. I told the man “Thank you” and gave the gift to Ellen. She smiled and said, “Now you take those candy bars. He knows I shouldn’t have them. I’ll never lose weight!” I laughed. Nearly every day Ellen makes popcorn for this man, who is incredibly grateful not only for the snack but for the daily consideration. In return, he gives her what he can for the week– spaghetti sauce, candy bars. The friendship brings them both gratitude, shown as a smile worn daily, and it is as simple as taking five minutes to pop some popcorn or return a clean dish.

When I went to visit Ellen this past week, she was watching “Sweet Home Alabama” (starring Reese Witherspoon and Josh Lucas) with a neighbor friend. Honestly, I was thankful to have the chance to just relax and watch the movie with her (the week had been a long and tiring one). However, Ellen found creative ways to inject conversation throughout the movie. She commented on the simple love-story (“Rom-com”) plot and said, “Now I believe everyone has had a first sweetheart at some point when they are young.” I nodded in agreement. Every so often she offered me Now & Laters candy she received from another neighbor friend, whom she makes popcorn for every now-and-then in return.

Her other neighbor friend watching the movie with us was very kind and smiled when she heard I volunteered at the local rescue squad (Western Albemarle). She suffers from seizures and told me, “Now I may be needing you and calling you one of these days.” I nodded in agreement (more as an affirmation of comfort for her), and we all finished watching the movie (of course Reese returns to her first sweetheart…).

Sometimes just sitting together on a quiet Friday afternoon is all that is needed to recover from a tiring week. Even interspersed conversation helps break up the predictable, cliché plot and keeps the simple act of watching TV a type of interaction among those who enjoy each other’s company, as neighbor friends.

I am visiting a new grandparent, Ellen, who lives out in Crozet. The drive out to her place is long but quite scenic. Charlottesville truly has a remarkable landscape surrounding it, with Crozet exhibiting a nice selection of open fields, neighboring forests, and mountains looming in the distance. It is quite a calming and gratifying drive, but its length does not fail to remind me just why I make it. When I arrive at Ellen’s, she greets me with gratitude and a personal appreciation for making the trip out to Crozet. That appreciation by itself is more than enough to cover the gas cost.

Ellen is energetic to the point where I can’t exactly tell just how old she really is. I know she must be approaching 90 because she has an array of photos detailing her extensive and growing family (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren). Her face, though, does not reflect 90 years. She seems to enjoy the fact that age is relative to how you live your life. She tells me, “I may be old, but I like to stay active.” (And I think, “I may be young, but I like to stay active too.”)

We sit in kitchen chairs across from each other, and she starts in immediately with, “Do you ever wonder why we are here? Like what’s the point?” I take a breath, sigh– what adolescent-almost-adult-college student hasn’t? I respond with a soft nod, and she continues talking about her faith and interpretations, wonderings, philosophy. I listen patiently, thinking at the same time how nearly a century of life can only ignite one’s curiosity about it– how seemingly exciting that must be and what great energy that must impart for those curious.

I have been calling Louise for three weeks now to no avail. I just recently found out that she is in a rehab center and no longer at home. I have also been told that she has another UVA volunteer that sees her every week, and so, I am to be assigned to a new grandparent. The news is exciting in a sense because I will be able to get to know another grandparent, but in another sense, it is a little sad to be leaving someone I have gotten to know for just about five months now. I am comforted to know that she will not be alone, and her weekly visits with a student will continue.

Reflecting back on my time with Louise, I have come to realize that she is incredibly dynamic. At 91, she was able to keep me enraptured in conversation as she espoused old memories and new ones, from stories about screwing in a light bulb in the kitchen to helping her husband get ready for a yard sale. Her associated emotions were suddenly fierce at times. It amazes me how true the old adage is–age is relative–because for Louise, it seemed at times she was so young, and then, at other times she seemed so old. I suppose it is not unexpected then that she had to move to a rehab center. Age has a way of making itself heard sooner or later– it is only so relative.

I have learned from Louise that life seems to creep up on you in a way that is both fleeting and gradual. What seems to be momentary anchors to life’s constant change are the memories you make along the way (cheesy perhaps, but it is so true). From Louise I learned how valuable memories (especially of loved ones) are because life will eventually creep up on you. You will be old, and those memories will be stories to tell, moments to share and recall. And it is a wonderful thing to listen to that recalling.

Louise looked a bit younger today. I don’t know. It must have been her eyes. They were really blue for some reason. She also said she had been having a good day, and I believe her. She just looked brighter than usual.

Louise talked about how she used to love ironing. She said, “Now I love it when the iron is piping hot. Really hot!” And she’d lean back, fold her hands neatly in front of her and just remember for a little bit. In these types of moments, I just sit placidly and allow Louise time for the memory. The time also gives me a chance to get ready (or rather prepare) for whatever she has to say next.

Then Louise launched into the next verse saying, “Yes, we would go to yard sales and pick up old irons no one else wanted, and I’d like them. And we’d keep them. Good as new to me. I have now four or five of them in boxes here—you know, just in case one goes bad and I need another.” She paused and looked at me, “Now whenever something breaks down, I always try to keep extra so I can replace it.” She smiled at me as if this secret was something sacred and only now revealed. “But now I am too old to iron.” Again she paused, and I prepared for the next thing she said. “You don’t know it now, but it gets hard when you are old,” and again, she paused.

Louise talks about how hard it is to be old at least once every time I see her, but this week, it really struck me. I don’t know how it is to get old, to be old—but how would I? How would/could I prepare for a part of my life that isn’t here yet? Is it possible to take Louise’s adage to heart and collect extra friends, extra family now so that when you break down, why, there is someone there to help keep you going, keep you functioning?

Louise is 91 years old. That’s old. The funny thing, is I forget about it when I listen to her. She is just so loud. She nearly shouts at you, but she does it not in a forceful or even personal way—in rather a remotely functional way as if the shout is more for her acknowledgement of conversation than your own.

It’s her shout and her eyes flickering (still blue!) that make her seem younger, not as old. I remember her saying over the summer, “Now blue eyes are the best. They last the longest.” Her eyes are still very blue, but they no longer are the very best. Despite me seeing her, I doubt she notices my eyes flickering or even that they are hazel. Her eyes flickering and her shout make her seem more like an excited child than a tired great-grandma.

She was telling me useful things this week like remembering to always clean potatoes outside the house and throw away the potato bag before bringing the washed potatoes in. That way, you don’t bring the roaches (that like to hide out among the potatoes) into the house. And that’s important. Don’t ever bring roaches into Louise’s house. She despises them. She told me, “Now when there is a bug in the house, I have to squash it and then clean real good the area around it. But my son, now, he has to take the thing alive outside the house. He’s different from me in that way.”

Her son is different from her, and I am thinking through all this, that I am different too. I sit across from her, tired from a long school day, thinking all I have to offer her are my ears to listen, but really, in a way I feel like all she needs or wants is just someone there– to know someone is physically across from her. She always welcomes friendly company into her house, not just the roaches.

Louise is the grandmother I am visiting this semester. She lives out in mild Albemarle county off of a country road with just herself and a nice son who lives in a house ten minutes away. She is a wonderfully sweet lady to talk to and listen to, especially when she takes sudden crescendos in her speech and seems to shout at you. At those moments, I just sit back and listen, allowing her to make her point boldly and then move on. And then there are the times when I have to shout just so she can hear me. Those moments are less laid-back and tend to be on the “awkwarder” side. Nonetheless, it is mostly me listening and her talking, and it is nice to just listen, to just hear of her troubles or her memories.

For instance, she reminds me often how her bypass surgery last spring has left her feeling miserable and faint. She says, “The doctors don’t know what faint means! If I could, I’d rip the definition right out of that dictionary over there and show it to them! But I can’t. I can’t see like that anymore.” (Louise is mostly-blind) Now she has a pig valve in place of her old, clotted one, and it is quite lovely to see her expression change when she touches her chest at her heart. She smiles instead and laughs, “Yes I have a pig valve now. A pig valve! You believe it?” And she chuckles and I chuckle at her chuckle, at her sudden change of mood from frustration to contemplation– and secretly too, I laugh a little at how the bulky, massive, but gentle swine can have such a lovely, biological, and stark effect on her mood for the evening.

This week at Trinity, I was able to settle back into the old groove of helping my grandparent play bingo. She is blind, so she hands me the chips and I place them on the correct numbers. We are both very competitive about the game, and as numbers are called, I make sure to tell her how the board stands and what critical slots we need to fill. The bingo prizes consist of bags of cookies, floral t-shirts, and stuffed animals, and it is enough to induce an intensity across the cafeteria as chips are played and numbers called.

We all still talk and make quiet jokes to each other when our cards get so close to BINGO but fail. It is all right because (my grandparent included) elderly smiles are exchanged. Talk of the weather and a nice church service to look forward to keep minds light.

Someone prematurely yells “Bingo!” from down the hall, just to alert elderly glances of doubt and confusion but inevitably, evolving laughter, and I enjoy my position as the “chip placer,” helping my grandparent help herself to a game of luck and expectancy.

I tell her, “Aw man..we’re close. Just two more spots..,” and she smiles and says, “Good now.” Then someone yells, “Bingo!” not prematurely, and elderly glances look up with a hope at doubt and a joke, but seeing another eager, winning face in return is answer enough for the competition to end. It ends with me telling my grandparent, “Well that’s how it is. You win some. You lose some.” And she answers with, “Yes. But I do like to win.”

I had to search for my grandma at Trinity this past Saturday, but I found her in her friend, Annabelle’s, room. She was quietly talking to Annabelle when I approached, reintroduced myself, and was kindly welcomed to sit on the nearby bed and join in on the conversation.

They were talking about the church service this past Sunday and the quality of the reverend’s sermon and preaching. My grandma asked me what I thought of a particular reverend, but I didn’t know him. She seemed a little disappointed that I wasn’t a member of the Mount Zion Baptist Church. She has been a life-long member of this church and used to play the organ for the services. Due to her recent blindness, she is resolved to playing the upright piano at Trinity for a small, selected audience of other Trinity residents. They love to hear her play though, and I remember a time last semester when she played a few Baptist hymns for me.

She can hear melodies and improvise upon them, releasing her version of the sung hymnal. She is able to remember the old songs she used to play for services, and she plays them with a new variation, one that is more syncopated and upbeat. You can tell she really enjoys playing these old songs but tweaking them just a little bit. You can tell she likes to create something slightly new from something very old. You can tell that despite having a routine in the nursing home, talking to the same friend everyday, eating the same type of food everyday, that she absolutely loves to palliate her time at Trinity with variations on the past, with musical threads and weaves– like a quilt keeping her knees (and mind) warm.

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