Retirement Homes Are Like North Korea

Last week, I performed with my high school’s music community service club at a nearby retirement home.

Retirement homes are hell with florescent lights. I especially love the upper-middle-class ones, because they have particularly deceptive facades. They spend more on the landscape design than the carpeting. Guest chairs are more comfortable than the mattresses, and 80% of the staff can be found smoking in the restroom.

Inside lies the purgatory of senior citizens.

Inside lies the purgatory of senior citizens.

Last time the music club performed there, we were lucky enough to have the concert in the garden. Only five semi-sentient elderly residents were capable of walking to the place, but we had a good time. I circled the facility for a very long time, seeing as a dementia patient gave me incorrect directions to the garden. Twice. I walked around the entire home, and the exterior was so perfect that I was fooled.

But it turns out that this particular retirement home is the California version of North Korea. Visitor areas are gorgeous, with old people reading, old people picking flowers, and old people uncomfortably flirting. I passed the larger rooms, which were more like small assisted-living apartments than the retirement boxes that make up the majority of the institution.But once you enter the deeper heart of the fortress, you begin to see the real picture. This time when we performed, we were in one of the dining “halls”.

In the lobby, I asked for directions to the concert area. The receptionist trepidatiously pointed me towards two double doors that entered a long hallway resembling a third world hospital. Once I entered the hallway, I couldn’t help but peer into the rooms. This is where you send Grandma when she’s too old to babysit for you. I saw the ends of “hospital beds” that were probably cots leftover from the second World War, along sparsely decorated, mobile dressers (by sparsely, I mean they had wilting flowers on them). You could hear a lot of infomercials on the televisions, and you could see a lot of irritated looking caretakers who just wanted to get their weekend in Vegas started.

Once I got to the “dining hall”, I realized that our attendance would be very low. You know your music club sucks when the only concert-goers are in wheelchairs and can’t escape. The room completely filled up though…because of the breathing apparatuses. When I was preparing songs, I couldn’t help but wonder if rock ‘n roll would agitate the old people (hip hop was just out of the question). No worries, though. The audience wasn’t even lucid.

Except for one woman, who would in a short time become my hero. Like the others, she was there against her will, but she at least, had a will to exercise. This was a woman who guilted her grandkids into visiting her by cussing them out. This was a woman stayed up all the way past 7 o’clock Jeopardy to watch Wheel of Fortune at a riotous 7:30 in the evening. This was a woman who put hot sauce on her nachos even if it gave her acid reflux. This was a woman who could speak her mind.

I knew she was special when she rolled her eyes at our club president’s introduction. And then she spoke, and the happy puppies and birdies of teenage musical innocence were blown from the room with a machine gun.

“I can’t hear them…thank God.

I was in gleeful shock. Never before had someone so loudly disdained our crappy renditions of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”. Never before had an old person cradled her head in her arthritic hands at the sight and sound of our talentless ensemble. It was rude. It was demoralized. But it was amazing.

She leaned over to the senior next to her and loudly made impolite comments into her ear. She was insolent, mannerless, uninhibited, and she didn’t give a crap. She was so loud that you could hear her over the piano, and the caretakers had to come.

They tried to quietly escort her from the room, but seeing as she was in the front, they had to play a very distracting game of traffic with wheelchairs in order to get her out. “Oh no,” she protested, “I like watching them fail.” The caretakers looked at us apologetically, but you could see it in their eyes: it was the truth.

And that is what happens to those who speak out. The revolutionaries get removed from the sight of visitors. God forbid we understand quite how horrible it is to be in one of those places, with pitchy teenagers as the only entertainment.

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