Besides being nervous about tap dancing for an audience, I was anxious about going to what my parents had always called an "old-age home."
In a Proustian way, I could smell the sour, medicinal, aging air that predominated the home my grandfather lived in the last five years of his life. I also could conjure up all too easily the sadness that enveloped me on those visits when he sometimes remembered me and sometimes didn't.
I felt a bit of relief almost immediately upon entering the Episcopal Church Home in Georgetown that Wednesday evening. Fresh, odorless air filtered through the hallways.
But as I walked toward the room where about 30 tap dancers from the Chevy Chase Community Center were to perform, I felt my heart pounding. Not because I was unsure of my "Tap and Clap" routine, but because I was unsure about what life was like for the home's 40 residents, 37 women and 3 men who average 86 years old.
It had been quite a while since I had spent time with the elderly, or is senior citizen the correct term today?
Though I had grown up living in the same house with my grandparents, the sterotype of old men and women in "homes" had, over the years, spread weblike through my brain: Old people just sit around staring with vacant faces; old people are senile and talk only about the past; old people don't laugh.
With such expectations, I took a peek at the audience of 13 residents, a nurse, an activities director, and parents of tap-dancing children. I looked at the assemblage and saw ghosts from the home my grandfather lived in: blank faces, motionless bodies.
The audience applauding a group as it finished its "Old King Cole" number shook me from my reverie. Before me stood a gray-haired woman smiling and clapping enthusiastically. The eyes of a man nearby sparkled with amusement. During the next routine, I suddenly caught the heads of a few residents bobbing in time to the taped music.
After the performance, a conversation with two of the residents in the audience dusted more webs out of my head. Both women, in expressing their enjoyment of the program, revealed a joie de vivre and sense of humor.
When I told them that dancing in public gives me a chance to pretend I'm on Broadway, one sprightly lady said emphatically as a smile creeped onto her face, "I should live so long to see you on Broadway."
"I don't think I'll live that long," I exclaimed amidst laughter.
The invitation from a resident to see her room confirmed for me that I had indeed been fooled by sterotype -- both of old-age homes and of their residents. The warm room I entered was filled with beautiful, smooth wooden furniture; the walls were covered with portraits.
This room, as she said, was "homey." "I even have my own bathroom," she added. The living quarter across the hall belonging to another resident (who puzzled over whether she was 92 or 93) radiated is own individual homeyness.
Old age may indeed bring forgetfulness, slow motion, fewer waking hours, and a greater need to be taken care of. But a glimpse of life in the Episcopal Church Home disproved that it must be the "winter of discontent."
Scenes of men and women coming and going freely, attending Friday afternoon sherry parties, and showing with pride their rooms to visitors, had begun to supplant the stored footage of old-age homes that had played in my head for 20 years.
Seeing people, who happen to be over 65, thrive in an environment that provides security along with independence supports Margaret Mead's claim that " . . . the elderly . . . can maintain themselves with dignity . . ."