The Wisdom of Age Project—Hampton Roads, Va. Spring 2012
Documenting Life Stories & How We Get By
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"Sing While You Have A Chance"

by Brelyn Powell

—Just then, without any hesitation, Mr. Watts burst into song right in front of me. Read on to hear Mr. Watts' song in an audio clip.

At just the thought of the elderly in assisted living conditions, I begin to feel my stomach twist just the way it does before tears swell in my eyes. That is how emotional I can be. I guess one could say I’m easily moved. Bearing this thought in mind, it makes little sense that I would enroll myself in a class for school wherein my coursework would be entirely based on first-hand experience in either a nursing home or an adult day-care center. Yet, that is exactly what I had done.

In high school, I volunteered at a nursing home with the foreign language club for which I held an executive position. After each day of volunteering, I would drive home in a state of emotion that I couldn’t even name. The elderly people I visited, all so seemingly helpless and stationary, seemed to have no other shining moment in their days aside from my visit. Noticing this, I was left feeling a horrible mixture of the most positive feelings for brightening their day, and the most negative feelings just knowing that a visit from me, a stranger, was what they looked forward to.

I have a confession to make: I put off my first visit to the Riverside’s PACE, Program for All-inclusive Care for the Elderly, Center as long as I could manage. I was afraid, not of elderly people or hospitals or anything like that, but of my inability to contain my emotions. To make me feel better about procrastinating my visit, I did research. I learned that the elderly people at the PACE Center are referred to as “participants.” I imagined a cold, impersonal facility at which no one bothered to get to know anyone, and all people brought there were nothing more than “participants.” This imaginary PACE Center in my mind did not seem welcoming. When it became clear that I could no longer postpone my visit—my class documentary project deadline was approaching—I set out with my nerves in knots and my hopes as high as I could manage to set them.

I arrived, left my anxiety in the parking lot, and entered the building. The actual PACE Center was much more inviting than the one from my imagination. The friendly Recreational Therapy Manager, Adrian Atkins, greeted me warmly and directed me to the main room, Hampton Lane. This is where most of the participants were lingering as they had just finished their lunches, I was told.

In the dining room, there are a good number of tables scattered throughout and at each table sat two or three participants. A few of the tables were glistening from the after-lunch clean up. The lingering smells of lunch and sanitizer filled the room. I singled out a man in a wheelchair who sat alone at one of the tables. I noticed he was the only person sitting alone and felt that familiar twist in my stomach, but I suppressed my irrational emotions. Adrian saw which participant I’d set my sights on and said, “Oh, that’s Mr. Watts. If you want someone who’ll talk, he’s a good one. Ask him about Mary…you see, Mr. Watts has himself a crush here at PACE.” At the mention of a romance, I was hooked.

I approached Mr. Watts and we introduced ourselves. The warmth behind Mr. Watts’ stare immediately relieved any stray anxiety that had not been shed since I entered the building. He shook my hand and exclaimed, “How come no one told me I was getting a visit from such a pretty young lady today?” I laughed and instantly felt at ease as we began our conversation, which at first, consisted mostly of talk about the PACE Center and how he came to be there. Mr. Claudius Watts began going to the PACE Center in December, a month after his wife’s passing, which had left him living alone.

Mr. Watts told me about the PACE Center’s recent fourth anniversary celebration, making a point to happily remember the ice cream and cake that was served, just like at an actual birthday party. “PACE has been open four years, and I’ve only been here since December, but I find it’s really interesting. I don’t want to even miss a day,” he said. At this point, a congenial staff member interrupted us to sanitize the table at which we sat.

I observed Mr. Watts, who, despite the pause in our conversation, still seemed lost in thought. “But I’ll tell ya,” he said, “I really love this place. I wake up with it on my mind.” Mr. Watts laughs admitting that he gets himself up at five o’clock in the morning to get himself ready for the PACE employees to pick him up in one of the many PACE buses.

He was overwhelmingly positive about the PACE Center, regardless of it being the solution to a despairing situation he faced most days before PACE. Now, he’s anxious and eager.

“I mean, all day long I’ll be looking at the clock and see a certain time that I know means the bus is coming to pick me up and I say, ‘What’s going on?’ I don’t like missing out on the activities that don’t start until it’s about time for me to go home. I’d rather just stay.” At PACE, he’s made “a lot of friends. In fact, yesterday, I uh, presented one friend with some roses.”

There it was. The romance I’d been waiting to hear about!

“It was a lady that I met during Christmas, and she didn’t know my name but she gave me a Christmas card and I thought that was really nice and we began to eat together and we began to talk. We talked about different things and what we like about life and what we expect out of life. She loves singing too…in fact, we did a duet here during one of the church services we have on Wednesdays. She’s a fine person…her name is Mary.”

Although Mr. Watts’ interest in Mary was intriguing, he had just revealed to me something else about himself that grabbed my attention full force. Mr. Watts was a man of music.

“Mr. Watts,” I asked, “Do you sing?”

“Oh yes, I love me some gospel,” he said. I had to know more.

“Do you find a lot of people here who share your love for music like Mary does?”

Mr. Watts chuckled as he said, “Well, I know they love to hear ME sing! I had a lady tell me on the bus that I ride here, she said, ‘Y’all gonna have to watch Mr. Watts!  I see all them ladies following behind him like a train!’”

I told Mr. Watts it seemed like he had developed a fan club and he humbly denied it.

“Oh no,” he said, “it’s just ‘cause I sing and they love to hear me sing. I talk a lot of junk just for fun, but that’s just the way I am.”

Gospel singing, he said, has always been an important part of his life.

“I’ve been singing a while. My voice ain’t like it used to be, but I can carry a tune. See, I’m 77 years old, so I sing while I got a chance.”

Just then, without any hesitation, Mr. Watts burst into song right in front of me:

Mr. Claudius Watts

Your grace and mercy

Brought me through.

I’m living this moment

Because of you.

Lord, I want to thank you

And praise you too.

Your grace and mercy

Brought me through.

I was floored. Mr. Watts had a beautiful, soulful voice and through his song, it was clear that his love for the gospel was deeply grounded in his heart.

     He waited for my reactions, but I was speechless.

“You know, they also have a choir here,” he said. “I was asking yesterday if we could arrange a male choir. You know, to give the men something else to do, because I see the men are not quite as active here as they should be. They’re here but they don’t push themselves to get involved.”

     Mr. Watts deeply believes that you get out of the PACE center as much as you put into it. He is so appreciative of the help he receives there and the thriving social life that it has provided for him. He told me the story of his interviewing process for PACE.

“When I came in for my interview, I was having a problem with my wheelchair,” he explained. “Someone came right up to me and said, ‘Let me help you figure out what’s wrong with that,’ and they said that if they couldn’t fix it then they’d find somebody who would know more about it, and I thought that was right awesome. You know, you don’t get help everywhere you go.

“There’re some really nice people in here,” Mr. Watts said, “and you know, the strangest thing about that is that you don’t know all of their problems or situations, but you can start a conversation and be positive that it will make their day. You don’t know what a lot of these people go through. I’ve been in rehabs and I’ve seen that some people in rehab haven’t seen even a relative in a while. They’re just put there. This place isn’t like that. This is a good place.”

The drive home from the PACE Center was much different than those drives I remember from my days ambivalently volunteering in high school. I felt one emotion now, and I knew exactly what to call it: comfort. Mr. Watts’ days were filled with good things, and he may not look back on my visit as the only good part of that day, which comforts me to no end.◊