First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
80 Going On Infinity
Ruth was my ageless benefactor and elder guardian angel—tough, pragmatic, and omnipresent. A “little old lady” in society’s eyes, she was a pioneer of this century from its beginning: activist and leader, social worker and professor, and a career woman for almost 60 years in a time when females with more domestic occupations were preferred.
Ruth was a fighter, argumentiave when necessary, always critical. At times, more of a devil’s advocate than heavenly guide—her halo definitely off center, knocked askew by her natural skepticism and combativeness.
But she was always there when I needed her.
I had been apprehensive about calling Ruth that December morning when Museum One was nearly a year old. Legally established in the preceding February, Museum One was strictly the “do-it-yourself” organization that I had envisioned with Erica. From its lawyerless incorporation to its founding board of directors to its official title, Museum One had been created exclusively by family and friends.
However, it was still mainly a paper entity with no staff (except myself), no office, and little money. Ruth would be the first outsider to help us—the premiere representative of a long succession of community and civic contacts so essential to the development and survival of a fledgling grass roots organization.
She was a commissioner of an ANC then, a D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The ANCS were a patchwork of geographic zones spread throughout the eight wards of the city, distinguished by an alphabet soup of symbols. ABCDEF up to G in Ward III where the Home (and senior facilities I had added since the summer) was located, as well as my new residence.
Museum One had already received $150 from ANC-3E in September, specifically for a newsletter, a combination publicity and fund raising vehicle to disseminate soon in the surrounding neighborhoods. The ANCS were truly a godsend for Museum One at this point, practically our only funding resource. For until we obtained tax-exempt status (which I expected in about six months or so), grants from most foundations and corporations were not available to us.
So I had resolved to approach every ANC in my ward for funds, for educational materials such as slides and for reimbursement for my teaching services. Ruth’s ANC-3C was next on my list of prospects. I was hopeful when I reached the chairman of the commission, anticipating that my earlier success with 3E would be advantageous to my cause.
However, I was disappointed when he immediately referred me to Ruth.
“I’m sorry,” he replied regretfully after I had provided him with a brief summary of Museum One. “But you’ll have to speak to Ms. H. first. She’s the one who deals with any programs for the aging. But be careful of her,” he warned me. “She knows her field, and she wants to make sure you know yours. I think the other commissioners will approve your project, but it’s important to have her support.” Then he added, “I’ll let her know about your proposal, and that you’ll be calling her in a day or two.”
I waited a few days, but in the interim, my anxiety and trepidation about this unknown woman steadily escalated. When I finally gained sufficient courage to telephone her, a snappy and antagonistic voice confronted me on the other end of the line.
“Yes, I know about you. They told me. You know, I’m really against using that money for the kind of project you’re working on,” she abruptly announced, after I had barely introduced myself. “I think the money should be used for political and activist purposes. I think it’s great that you’re teaching at the Home and those retirement places. Older adults need art in their lives as do the institutionalized in general. Don’t get me wrong…but I’d like to see them politically involved too.”
I listened stunned by Ruth’s candor. Should I hang up the receiver now, I wondered? Why should I bother to continue this conversation, when she was obviously so against me.
Or should I beg for mercy, imploring her to at least hear my case? What could I lose?
I was about to plead my defense when she testily demanded, “What is Museum One, anyway? What does it mean?”
I quickly responded, realizing that perhaps I was being presented with a second chance. I had to talk fast, and think at the same, accelerated pace.
“Museum One means,” I tried to articulate swiftly, yet distinctly, “that one person, a qualified instructor, can bring the cultural resources of the art museum to members of the community who are physically, economically, or geographically restricted, with a special emphasis on senior citizens.”
“Hmmm,” was Ruth’s sole comment. After a pause of what seemed more hours than minutes, she asked suspiciously, “Did you make that up?”
“A friend did,” I confessed cowardly, unwilling to assume full responsibility for Museum One’s origins.
“Well, it sounds interesting,” Ruth conceded to my great relief. “But I don’t know…we have to be careful with our money…we don’t have that much…”
Then began the inquest, my trial by telephone in which Ruth proceeded to cross-examine me. A nonstop barrage of questions that would be employed by almost every potential donor and benefactor of Museum One in the upcoming years.
First, the concrete, hard facts concerning expenditures, time frames, and future revenues.
“What are you going to use the money for? Personnel? Supplies? Transportation? And over what period? Six months? One year? Two years? What audience will you be reaching—and where? What are you going to do after our funding ends? Where are you going to get your funding from then?”
Followed by the most intangible and nebulous subject: the justification for Museum One’s very existence.
“What are the benefits of your project? Why should art be brought into nursing homes? How is it going to improve people’s lives? Aren’t there more pressing issues? Health? Nutrition? Housing?”
Ruth would be my most relentless interrogator, exposing any possible weakness or flaw. For at least an hour and a half, she pursued me with her unending inquiries which I countered—explaining, defining, and demonstrating the value and uniqueness of my organization over and over again.
I attempted to relay my own conception of Museum One to Ruth—my grand design, my emerging dream. The network serving nursing and retirement homes that I planned to establish, served by our specially trained instructors; the variety of art appreciation series they would teach, ranging from Renaissance to modern art; the weekly sessions in which residents would have the opportunity, through art, to analyze and reflect, imagine and dream. Like Sarah, to explore a new dimension, or Erica, to revive a former love, or May, to express what was formerly inexpressible.
It was close to noon when Ruth unexpectedly curtailed her investigation. “O.K….your programs sounds OK to me. Can you come to our commission meeting next week?”
“Yes-s-s,” I stuttered in amazement at her invitation.
“Fine…but,” she cautioned, “I can’t promise anything.”
At that meeting, the commissioners voted Museum One what seemed to me than a staggering amount—$1,000, allocated mainly for my teaching time, a considerable increase from $150 only a few months before. It was Ruth who recommended this generous figure to her colleagues, transforming in one week from my foremost critic to my staunchest defender.
And she would be responsible for thousands of additional dollars for Museum One, independent of the commission. In the ensuing years, she would lead me through the labyrinth of foundations, businesses, and government agencies, supplying precious names and irreplaceable telephone numbers.
“Have you heard of the A. Trust,” she would suddenly call, her tone rushed and harried. “Take this information down, it’s important!” Or another time, an evident emergency. “You must get in touch with Mr. S. at the Humanities Office immediately and have him send you their guidelines. They have a deadline coming up soon!”
Ruth became my mentor, though an exacting one, imposing the highest expectations, the most rigorous goals. “I know that I’m too negative,” she admitted once after unenthusiastically greeting my news of another award from a neighboring ANC. “I’m just too critical. But I don’t understand why you asked them for more funding for slides! Our ANC gave you money for slides. Do you really need more?”
Yet, what I learned from Ruth was incalculable. It was she who introduced me to the community—her personal realm and absolute territory. Another country really, foreign and unknown to me. A cluster of committees, councils, coalitions and boards governed by the social issues of aging, health, housing, and impoverishment. A landscape of senior centers, nutrition programs, church homes, and for-profit retirement facilities peopled by social workers, therapists, nurses, and volunteers.
Most crucial, though, was her knowledge of the population itself. She made certain early in our relationship that I was aware of the proper terminology. “It’s not senior citizens, but older adults or Americans,” she would regularly lecture me. “Not elderly but elders. And you’re not working with one homogeneous group…it’s heterogeneous. From 60 to 100…from older people still living active lives to thise who are chronically ill. That’s at least two generations! With all kinds of conditions….visual impairments, hearing loss…I wonder how many people are truly seeing your slides…have you ever thought of that? And memory loss, disorientation, Alzheimer’s disease….any social worker can tell you about them.”
“And do you know the statistics?” she’d inevitably conclude. “How fast the older population is growing? At twice the rate of the rest of the population! Can you imagine what it’s going to be like in the year 2000, when the baby boomers start to age…and is anyone prepared for it?” she’d shout, her high-pitched voice reverberating over the phone. “I’ve been talking about this for years. You don’t know how I’ve felt…like the voice of doom. Because where are we ever going to get the resources to deal with it? It’s already at a crisis point. When are people going to realize that something must be done?”
For Ruth was perennially ahead of her own era, reaching beyond not only her peers, but all generations. A prophet and soothsayer, seeing far into the future. Eighty going on infinity.
COMING NEXT ON WEDNESDAY: TINY SLIPS OF PAPER
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