Announces 2017 Scholarship Winner

We are excited to announce that Rod Vafaei became the winner of SeniorsZen 2017 Scholarship Award with the essay entitled “The Missing Ingredient”!

This was an extraordinary year - we received over 150 submissions and the decision to select the winner did not come easy as there were so many outstanding essays and infographics on topics ranging from multigenerational living to living with dementia, LGBT seniors to spousal living in long term care, abuse of seniors to financial hardships that seniors are facing, ageism to virtual dementia tours, role of specialized pharmaceutical care for seniors to the impact of green spaces in assisted living communities, the value of aging academics to eating disorders in older adults, and so many more non-fiction and creative fiction stories, personal tales and artistic infographics. We thank all applicants for participating.

As a Master of Biomedical Technology (MBT) candidate at the University of Calgary and an active member of his community, Rod Vafaei is inspired to solve the future challenges we may face in health care. Rod is also an avid community leader, serving both as his class’ student body President and on the campus’ Student Medical Response team. For fun, Rod likes to play his guitar, explore the great outdoors, or spend quality time with friends over a hot cup coffee. Rod’s personal dedication to a balanced lifestyle and his experiences working with the elderly in his community have made him aware of the importance of caring for an individual’s quality of life. He believes that staying true to this lesson will help guide him in a successful career in health care.

Please enjoy reading the essay by Rod Vafaei ,“The Missing Ingredient”:

​The Missing Ingredient

My interactions with her started like most. I had received an e-mail from the volunteer co-ordinator requesting that I spend time with a resident who was feeling particularly lonely. When I asked the nurses to introduce me, they let me know she prefers to be called by her nickname, Toni. She was an internal cardiologist who had been in Europe during the Second World. She enjoyed going for walks in the courtyard – and for someone of her age, she kept up an impressively quick pace. She avoided using her walker, perhaps it was a grim reminder of where she was and the certainty ahead of her that she did not want to accept yet.

After our walks, we would sit and she would indulge me in a half-hour question and answer session. After over fifty years of practice, medicine may not have been her topic of choice, but it was a common interest so it was often the topic chosen. Our conversations seemed to give her purpose as my mentor. In exchange for her knowledge, I would often bring to the table my sense of humor and a comforting tone. And yet, I could never remove the sense of longing in her eyes or the staged nature to our relationship. After all, I had no prior relationship to her and our interactions started and ended with my shifts. Though, what was more troubling was how my presence served as a constant reminder of how her own son was not there visiting her instead. Her son was, after-all, all we talked about when the topic drifted away from the field of medicine. In her son’s defence, he likely learned from her the ambitious career drive that kept him away. And without his prestigious job in a different province, he could not possible finance his mother’s stay at such a high-end senior living facility. Alas, Toni gave me the impression that her son may have overlooked the value of his presence over the quality of the living facility.

Six months after the day that I started visiting her, she became ill and her body’s slow shutdown was triggered. Her strength went first, followed closely by her memory and cognitive functions. Unable to walk or stand from her wheel chair, conversation was all we had left. But, with her worsening dementia, even the conversations had become labored, repetitive, and difficult. Our conversations also grew ever darker, as everything was a reminder of how dull her once brilliant mind had turned and how deteriorated her once fit body had become. Her physical and emotional pain grew alongside her resentment for her body’s ultimate betrayal of her command. And worst of all, even with her declining state of health, when she asked why her son was not visiting her – and she would ask often – I had no satisfactory answers for her, because the only answer that would have ever sufficed would have been, “he’s actually here waiting to see you.” None of this, however, was new to me. After two years of volunteering at the senior center, neither her downward spiraling condition nor the depression and loneliness were new sights. In fact, they were almost a trademark of where I was. And sadly, the ending, though never any less painful, was also hauntingly familiar.

I held her hand for a full hour on my last visit to her room. We barely spoke, other than the occasional remark. Near the end of my shift, she asked one of the nurses if she could speak with her son, and if she was well enough to “leave the hospital.” Somewhat ignoring her first question, as I am sure it was the hundredth time she had heard it today, the nurse produced a smile and replied, “Sweetheart, this is your home! Your son has taken care of everything for you. Don’t worry about a thing!” Unsure of what I could do for her, I simply watched defeat take over Toni’s expression and wheeled her back to her room. With soft eyes, she thanked me for visiting her and I told her that I would see her next week. That is a promise that has made me a liar a few times.

The following Sunday I arrived to see Toni’s emptied room, her nametag removed from the door. My heart sank because I knew exactly what that meant. I found the courage to approach a nurse and ask where Toni had gone. The discomfort in the nurse’s expression told me everything I needed to know. I found myself stricken with grief and unable to go back for almost a month. She was certainly not the first senior resident I had been close to who had passed, but her passing was particularly hard to cope with. Maybe it was how much we shared in common and my respect for her career, or maybe it was that her end was everything I feared for my own parents. Her loneliness and lack of attention from her son, her struggle coming to terms with her mortal body, and her displeasure with her surroundings were all the things I did not wish for anyone, particularly not my own parents. But with modern life, demanding job markets and a career-centered culture dedicated to the rights of the individual, I wondered if other options were available. There may be a plethora of new senior living models that are mindful of freedom and social contact, but they still lack the fundamental unit of what I know my parents, and possibly other seniors, would crave: their family’s attention. So as I reflected on Toni’s departure, and as I looked towards my own parents approaching retirement, I began to feel that maybe new living models alone may not give us the answer we are looking for. Maybe, in addition, we need a shift in culture and frame of thought that will allow a response to the quiet cries of our seniors for their family’s time and attention.

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