“But it’s the story of my life.” That’s what Tula told us. Tula was a small woman in her late sixties with hair cut short and slicked back and wisps of beard and mustache growing from her lips and cheeks. Every chance she got she’d buttonhole us and launch into long, wild, rambling stories from her life. Or at least how she remembered it. Voyages by ship to Greece. From Greece? Waking up in 1959 to learn of a husband and child of whom she had no memory. The rights and powers of godfathers under the “Greek religion”. Lurid tales of her encounters with doctors. “They cut my breasts.” “They told me I had cancer. I never had cancer.” “They told me to take pills. I never took any pills.”
I hustled into the Glen Elston Nursing Home at 8:46 this morning. Late. As usual. I sought directions at the front desk and made my way to the rec room where we would be taking absentee ballots for the upcoming elections. Rosa, Rebecca, and Walter were waiting for me when I arrived, Rosa and Rebecca in their fifies and Walter in his late sixties or early seventies. I was to learn that Walter wasn’t more than a step or two ahead of the residents of the nursing home.
We arranged tables to provide plenty of room for wheelchair-bound residents, set up the privacy screens for the punchcard voting machines, and set up an area for our work. We opened at 9:10. Only a few minutes late. After checking the applications, we found we had only twenty-eight absentee ballots. This was going to be easy. We’d be done before noon. Not like the last nursing home assignment I’d had with more than 150 absentee ballots and most bedridden so we had to wander the halls looking for their rooms.
The people in the nursing home range in age from 40 to 80, most with various forms of dementia. After taking perhaps twenty minutes to fill out her ballot (it could be done in five), Audrey M. brought it back to us and screamed at the top of her voice “You won’t like mine. Why don’t you tell us anything here?” and so on for perhaps five minutes. Another resident yelled back at her. “She’s not mad at us”, I told my associates. The other yelling resident heard me and stopped yelling. “You’re right”, she said. “She’s mad at the world”.
Mr. P, a tall, powerful-looking man in his seventies, tottered up to us pushing his walker in front of him. “May I have your name, sir?”, I said. He responded in Polish. He spoke only Polish. I tried Russian on him. Uh, uh. German? Nope. One of the attendants scurried away to find a Polish-speaking attendant. Rosa (Irish surname) addressed Mr. P in fluent Polish. She was a woman of hidden abilities. No problems here.
And so it went throughout the morning. Take a name. Get a signature. How long had they lived here? Check them off the list. Offer a demonstration. Help them to the booths. Are they doing okay? Take the ballot. Thank them. Repeat.
Any of the theoreticians who think we’re going to improve this process with shiny new computerized touch screens have never worked on a real election. Most of the residents of this nursing home can barely manage the punchcard system they’ve been using for more than twenty years. It’s pretty much the limit of their motor control. Not to mention vision issues. I can’t imagine them using a touch screen.
We finished at 11:30 and filled out our forms. 24 voted, 4 not voted. The election is tomorrow. As Tula said “That’s the book of my life. It’s not a pretty story. But it’s the story of my life.”