Since I joined the Amsterdam office in October 2017, I have had the pleasure of participating in three Walking with the Elderly events. For those not familiar with this program, it is not the latest Amsterdam team building event, where the under 30 employees take their older colleagues for a walk, although that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Walking with the Elderly is a volunteer program in which Celanese employees from the Amsterdam office team up with residents from Vondelstede retirement home and go for an outside stroll. These residents all have several things in common. They are elderly, withthe youngest person I met being 87, and the oldest resident estimated she was between 94 and 98! They are also some of the nicest, warmest, strongest and funniest people you will ever meet; they love to be outside and they all suffer from dementia – some of them severely.
The Vondelstede residence is located right at the Vondelpark, one of the most beautiful parks of the Netherlands. Founded in 1864 as a privately owned park, it went through several transitions and restorations and has now become a great example of the Dutch open culture. It’s a place where people from all races, religions and sexual orientations coexist and bring the meaning of “live and let live” to life. Here, people come to relax, run, play sports, rollerskate, walk their unleashed dogs and ride their bikes; and many tourists visit on a sunny day to sit and experience the Dutch grass.
That’s the environment where we takea group of about 10 residents for a walk once a quarter. Since none of them are allowed to leave the residence without professional guidance, they spend most of their time confined to their chairs inside the residence. It’s not a surprise that many of them love it when the Celanese team shows up to take them for a walk outside.
It usually takes a while to move them from the four floor residence to the park. The elevators are small and slow and only take one or two wheelchairs at a time. Then the “gang” needs to get dressed with gloves, scarvess, hats, socks and blankets. And on the rare occasion that the weather is nice and dry, all hats, scarves and gloves come off again after a few minutes. But once that is done, the walk really takes off. Well,takes off may be an exaggeration. These walks go at a really slow pace.Five minutes into our walk, the group starts to separate. The wheelchair gang is much faster than the walkers, so our tour leader, Irma, stays busy trying to keep the group together.
Since this trip is truly about the journey, the slow pace is actually perfect. It allows for plenty of time for awesome conversations, and that is what makes these walks so special. To take these wonderful, warm but sometimes lonely people outside their normal environment and offer them a change that breaks their routine is so rewarding. Once outside, they talk, gossip, and share stories about their lives, children and places they have been. We comment on what we see – the ducks in the pond, a dog chasing a ball, the color of the leaves, etc.. Their stories are amazing, and yes – sometimes they will tell them two, three or even four times. Sometimes the details change, but they enjoy talking because they know we are listening.
Typically, halfway through our walk, we take a break for coffee at one of the little cafés in the park. Sometimes we order apple pie with whipped cream for them. Some of the residents struggle to eat their apple pie or drink their coffee because their hands shake too much, so we feed them. And when you pull back an empty spoon, and they look at you with a smile, there is an incredible and beautiful moment of a real connection. That is the moment when you know that despite having to walk slower than you ever thought was possible, and despite that you have to listen to some of the same old stories over and over again, you will be back to do this again.
Thank you to the many regulars who volunteer to walk and have been doing so for many years. Thank you to Irma for introducing me to this great event and for the energy she puts in to make it happen.
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