Eighty-nine-year-old Eugene Berland sits in a comfortable chair, in his own sunlit room overlooking Sixth Street and a meadow beyond. Surrounding him are colorful photographs of family and friends.
The room is clean and tidy and on the floor beside him lays a stack of latch hook kits to make murals from bits of yarn. “See that teddy bear picture on the bottom? I’ve sold 10 of those,” he says.
Contrary to popular belief, nursing homes are not simply the stereotypical “sad” institutions of the past, and the director of the Cheney Assisted Living Center, Diane Smart, will be the first to tell you this.
“My goal is to come into work and make these residents laugh and smile on a daily basis,” said Smart. She pauses a second, holding back tears. “I guess because of that stereotype, ‘Going here to die.'”
An assisted living center differs from other elderly housing facilities because it focuses on enabling residents to maintain their independence for as long as possible. “It keeps a lot of their dignity as we get older and are unable to take care of ourselves,” said Smart.
The elderly’s independence in old age helps them physically, mentally and spiritually. “I want to let them know they are still alive. Life doesn’t end because you go into assisted living care,” said Smart.
The hallways of the center are calm, cozy, well-lit and have tasteful paintings dotting the walls.
We turn a corner and I am suddenly gazing out over a quiet field of fuzzy grey and white heads with the cheerful ding of silverware reaching my ears. “See, they’re happy,” says Smart.
Little groups of elderly men and women murmur with one another at tables full of steaming dishes and tiny pots of fragrant live flowers.
In the corner, finishing up a blueberry cobbler, sits Berland and his buddy, 88-year-old Galen Haugen. The two swap jokes as I pop the first question. How long have they been here?
Several minutes pass as they banter back and forth, each deciding for the other how long they have been at the center. I ask if they could each give a brief history of their life.
A silence takes over for a moment. And then Berland speaks up. “I was born in Minnesota, raised in North Dakota, brought up in Montana and finished in Washington.”
Haugen interrupts. “Whad’ya mean you’re finished? You’re not finished yet.”
Berland pauses to yell out hushing comments at a gaggle of elderly women raising a ruckus behind him. I ask, what do you do here? They laugh, exchanging looks through reading glasses.
“Fight with one another,” says Berland.
“Try to make a lot of noise,” says Haugen.
The atmosphere in the dining room of the Cheney Assisted Living Center that day was anything but sad. Indeed, there was more an atmosphere of positive camaraderie among friends.
Located on Sixth Street, the seven-year-old center has 28 rooms, but the occupancy fluctuates. Residents may leave and return to their families, go to the hospital and not come back, or move next door to a more intensive care home, the Cheney Care Center.
Each resident has their own apartment which is cleaned once a week.
They eat three meals a day together in a cafeteria that is more like a giant dining room. A lot of the residents watch TV and do sewing projects.
“We like to eat. We like to rest. We like to eat. We like to rest. And we sleep at night,” said Berland.
But it hasn’t always been this nice at assisted living homes.
Even as recently as the 1960s, little elderly ladies could have been legally tied to their own beds by health professionals.
It was to prevent them from having accidents by falling, said Smart. “Back then it was thought that this would keep them safe, but it didn’t,” she said.
As can be seen, care for the elderly has improved immensely. “I would like to see more young people become involved with the elderly. It makes them feel young again, to a certain degree,” she said.
For Smart, her job is to keep improving this field, a few brilliant smiles at a time.