Twenty years ago, a group of American professionals from within the long-term care sector came together under the mutual understanding that the aged and aging souls who’d helped to build their society were being failed by the system designed to support them in their final years.
A plague of boredom, loneliness and depression, as early pioneer Dr. Bill Thomas suggested, had infected traditional nursing homes scattered on the outskirts of communities across the western world. Elders were warehoused and forgotten by far too many, and the medicalization of the aging process led people to believe that answers were found in pill bottles, not in relationships. The Pioneer Network grew out of that 1997 meeting to change the culture of aging as it stood and restore the place of the elder in community to a height of reverence, where a life of purpose and meaning is not only possible until a person’s final breath, but is expected.
The annual conference the network created now draws people from around the world to the U.S. and Schlegel Villages has become a regular fixture among the organizations helping to lead the change.
Sandra Mercer, a personal support worker from the Village of Wentworth Heights, was among 22 ambassadors who travelled to Chicago for this year’s event.
“I can’t express how humbled I am to be able to represent Wentworth Heights and go to the Pioneer Network,” Sandra says, “meeting people and elders that started the movement 20 years ago. When they started 20 years ago to where they’ve come now, it has grown so much it’s amazing.”
“It was just so humbling, and everybody that was there has the same feeling – they want to give so much of themselves to give our elders life purpose. There was just so much of an aura around the people that were there; it was unbelievable.”
She was struck how many people commented on the leadership Schlegel Villages and the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging has offered the global culture change movement, and she was proud when people would thank her for her role in that.
David Kent remembers that same feeling two years ago when he attended his first Pioneer Network Conference. Every person he spoke with knew the Schlegel name in a positive light, and he attended that conference to share his viewpoint as one of the organization’s residents. This year, he was invited to speak in the plenary presentation, alongside another resident from a home in California.
David’s life was transformed after moving into the Village of Erin Meadows and two years ago, he shared the story of how that transformation began. Now he’s busier than ever, taking on roles as vice-president of the Ontario Association of Residents’ Councils, a facilitator of three high-school programs and a regular volunteer within his home. He’s also been asked to present at Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Before moving into Erin Meadows, David’s life quality was greatly diminished as the degenerating effects of a muscle wasting disease compounded over the course of nearly 4 decades. Today, thanks in part to the support of his new home, he says his disease is still in full remission and though it tired him, he was able to go 16-hours a day at this year’s event.
“It’s a miracle,” David says, “and this home (Erin Meadows) is a big part of this.”
The event this year was filled with “lifetime memories,” David says: the plenary presentation; meeting with the various founders; sitting upon the Schlegel Villages Wisdom of the Elder benches and simply talking with the countless attendees who stopped to say hello.
Like Sandra, David says he was continually humbled throughout the entire event, and beyond proud to represent an organization that is helping to lead the change.