Early morning at the Santa Marta Senior Living Center in Olathe, Kan., a dozen white-haired men and women are finishing the last dregs of their breakfast coffee, sharing stories and lots of laughs.
So much it sounds like a laugh track.
But among the deeper, throatier chortles, there is one high-pitched giggle belonging to fifth-grader Michelle Meyer. On this day, she’s showing these oldsters all the tricks of her new smartphone, including some funny YouTube classics.
At 10, the girl with the plump cheeks and tea-colored curls doesn’t yet notice her friends’ frown lines and eye crinkles. She waits patiently when one struggles to stand because of arthritis or reaches for her walker with the tennis ball feet.
She doesn’t see “old” as a weakness, just something to adjust to.
She sees kindnesses. People who are really smart about life stuff but who want to hear what she has to say, too.
There’s her pal Betty Lou Hinderks, 87, an expert gardener who swims three days a week, who is teaching Michelle about gardening. Michelle knows about bleeding hearts and hostas and Japanese ferns. She learned last week how to deadhead roses. (“You look for the five leaves past the spent bloom and cut on an angle,” she said.)
There’s also Joanne Casper, who listens for hours without interruption as Michelle tells her about something that happened at school. Casper buys drawing pads and pencils for Michelle, just like Michelle’s Grammy used to. Michelle shares boxes of Girl Scout cookies with her.
But in the center of everyone is Michelle’s best-est buddy, her 78-year-old “Poppa,” Ed Hall. When Poppa and granddaughter are together, at least once a week, the decades between them melt away like a return to the days when generations of families lived all together under one roof. When wisdom was revered in faces etched by life experiences instead of air-brushed perfections.
Michelle gives him side-hugs, pinches his nose, holds up two finger bunny ears behind his silver hair, sticks a finger in an ear. He teases her right back when she tries to squeeze in next to him.
“This seat’s taken,” he says. She punches his shoulder.
“Your hair looks beautiful today,” he says, then adds a, “NOT! You need to go comb it.”
She leaps up, returning moments later with shiny brushed hair.
He quickly follows teasing with a splash of braggadocio, like how much she knows about gardening, or how smart she is, and how talented she is playing the piano, both composing her own pieces and reading sheet music. (A month ago, she played music from “Les Miserables” in a piano recital at the center.)
Her Poppa knows her favorite pastry (a cream cheese Danish), and when the kitchen staff has them in, they hold one back for him to give Michelle. He lets her eat breakfast watching cartoons, sometimes. She decided she likes vegetables because so many of her friends at the center love them.
The two go to movies and art museums. He taught her how to play chess. She taught him how to text. Last week when she was angry at her parents she texted him, saying what really happened. She goes to him first when she has problems.
“I have to walk a fine line with that,” Hall says, chuckling, because he’s careful to not over-step the decisions made by her parents.
“He helped me a lot with a mean boy,” she says. “He told me to tell him to take a long walk on a short plank.”
“I also told you to not sweat the small stuff,” he says. “You go to sleep tonight, and tomorrow it won’t matter.” (But he talked with her teacher, too.)
Poppa and granddaughter have a lot of talks about Grammy and heaven and how peer pressure can make you do things you really don’t want to do. He tells her choosing good friends is one of the most important decisions a person can make.
“That’s why I like my friends here,” she answers fast, shooting him a grin.
“You know every generation thinks the younger one is going to hell in a handbasket,” he says, pinching her shoulder. “But I know they don’t. The kids grow up, and they’re great.”
He has witnessed it with his own brood: three children, in three solid marriages, blessed with 10 grandchildren living from Overland Park, Kan., to Portland.
Sitting nearby, Michelle’s mom, Kathleen Hall-Meyer, says she knows for certain her father has become the hippest grandpa she has ever known. When Michelle announced that her goals for summer were to have mindless entertainment, her Poppa said No! Instead, he found a college student who will be a nanny for her during the week. Someone to take her to the park, to Worlds of Fun, to the mall. Someone other than himself because “that would be good for her,” he says.
Her father’s parenting/grandparenting skills are a gift, Hall-Meyer says.
She is a nurse, as is Michelle’s dad, Rick. Both work long shifts at different hospitals. Their older son, James, 20, is a pre-med student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Michelle, who dreams of being a large animal veterinarian, needed grandparents.
Bringing family together
Hall-Meyer grew up with a strong relationship to her own sets of grandparents and wanted that for her kids. But her parents lived in Wichita. Her husband’s parents live in Jefferson City. With both sets of grandparents hours away, there were few spontaneous visits or sleepovers or special life moments.
But in 2006, her parents announced they were soon moving to Olathe, Kan., to a senior living center still under construction. They had a dire announcement, too: Hall-Meyer’s mother, Judy Hall, had lung cancer.
Hall didn’t want her children and grandchildren scrambling to find her a nursing home if she needed it. Nor did she want her husband and her children to be saddled with all the stuff that a well-lived life accumulates.
She dealt with everything straight up. The couple, married for almost 50 years, downsized and purged and moved into the brand new senior living facility. (Hall-Meyer thought at the time it was just a euphemism for nursing home.)
“I was so wrong,” she says, and laughs. “My mom nicknamed this place the cruise ship.” (And Michelle keeps asking management to lower the move-in age to 10.)
The grandparents rented a large apartment with two bedrooms, roomy kitchen, study and sun room. There are dining options from a first-floor restaurant or café. On the far wing of the facility is a skilled nursing facility with physical therapists. There’s a swimming pool, hair salon and bus service to stores.
But when the Halls saw the gleaming wood floors in their apartment, they knew they were home.
A time of transition
Within weeks of moving in, they traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and began a whirlwind of treatments for newly diagnosed cancer patients: surgery, chemo, radiation.
Hall’s cancer disappeared for three years filled with shared Sunday dinners, family vacations, more memories and lots of baby-sitting.
But in late 2009 her cancer came back with a vengeance. Before she ran out of tomorrows, she talked with each of her children and grandchildren, one-to-one, saying goodbye.
Ed Hall grows quiet remembering that time. “The one thing I really want my children to know is to be flexible to change. It’s the one constant in our lives.” He has given all of his grandchildren a copy of the book “Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and Your Life,” by Spencer Johnson.
When his daughter, Hall-Meyer, looks back on the entire transition, she shakes her head in wonder.
“I worried so much about the kids recoiling from being around so many old people. Just the opposite happened. People underestimate the power of grandparents. Even my own dad, I don’t think, realizes how important he is to Michelle.”
But Hall-Meyer sees it.
“We lost my mom, but we’ve gained a lot. It feels like Michelle has 60 grandmothers now, all just waiting to love on her.”
Hall-Meyer has noticed something else in her daughter, too. Last year, Michelle and her parents were visiting the other set of grandparents, Paul and Frances Meyer, in Jefferson City. She watched as her Grandma Meyer struggled to walk with a lot of pain.
“Grandma,” Michelle just blurted out, “Why don’t you get a walker? My friend Ann uses one, and sometimes she even rides a scooter. She can go really fast. It would help you go a lot faster, too.”
Michelle’s parents held their breath. Their daughter was touching on the elephant in the room, aging grandparents being reminded they were slowing down.
But speaking up, so matter-of-factly, is another example of the life lessons Michelle is learning from hanging around her Poppa and all her other “grandmothers,” Kathleen Hall-Meyer says.
“Michelle wasn’t telling her that she had a weakness but was sharing with her a way to help her live better,” she remembers.
The insight her little girl had, she says, “astonished me.”
Perhaps the biggest change of all has happened to Hall-Meyer herself.
“I’m not afraid to grow old . especially if I can live here.”