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Walmart’s Big Bottle Blowup

Walmart Tom Smith rally 11-27-15Bright and early on Black Friday, I was outside the Walmart in East Greenbush soaking up sunshine, but I wasn’t there to shop. No, I was at a rally in support of Thomas Smith, who lost his job for turning in empty soda bottles for refunds. The Times Union’s Paul Grondahl broke the story on November 19th, and the Washington Post ran a follow-up article two days later. Now it’s gone viral—I’ve even found articles in the British and German press.

Walmart Tom Smith rally Alice green & Walmart execs 11-28-15Smith’s take for the empty bottles? A grand total of $2.10, according to the store’s managers, but they later upped the total to—horror of horrors—over $5.00. He had served over 13 years in prison for an attempted bank robbery in 2002 and was on parole when he was hired by Walmart at the end of August. He made $9.00 per hour rounding up shopping carts and picking up trash in the parking lot. On the Sunday of the great bottle heist, he walked two hours from the halfway house in Albany where he lived to get to the store for a shift starting at 8:00am. (The managers had refused to change the start time although he told him no buses were available that time on Sundays.)

Walmart later claimed they could not reinstate Smith because he had failed to disclose his prior felony conviction during the job application process, a fact he denies. “We believe he has told the truth from the beginning,” activist Alice Green was quoted as saying in Saturday’s Times Union. “His story has never changed. Only Walmart’s story keeps changing. In all our discussions with Walmart, they never raised the issue of not disclosing his conviction before. We will continue to support and fight for him.”

About 50 demonstrators showed up on Friday morning, including people from labor and religious groups and the NAACP. I learned of the rally through an e-mail from Emily McNeill, a staff member of the Labor-Religion Coalition, who said the protest was not only about Thomas Smith but about Walmart’s mistreatment of low-wage workers in general. I’ve participated in many demonstrations over the years, but this one struck a particular chord because of Thomas Smith’s personal story.

Although I hung in as a creative arts therapist at a psychiatric center long enough to earn a New York State pension and ran a licensed home care agency for nearly a decade, I’ve been fired from a few jobs, generally because of behavior related to bipolar disorder, both before and after I was diagnosed. (As a clerical temp at Regeneron, the pharmaceutical company in East Greenbush, I went from designing Power Point presentations to deciding I should run the company, which didn’t go over too well.)

So I know how much being fired hurts. Whether there’s justification or not, it wreaks havoc with your self-esteem. Deep down, I always knew I could land another job, and now that I’m on Social Security and Medicare, I’ll never have to again, so I can be as flaky as I please. In cases like Thomas Smith’s, it may not be so easy. Because of all the publicity and the people standing up for him, as well as the personable, articulate personality he displayed on Black Friday morning, he’ll probably find work—I’m sure Target would love to have him. But there are millions of others who won’t be so lucky.

I was one of the more than 2,000 people who signed a petition demanding that Walmart pay Smith’s back wages, rehire him and apologize by Monday, November 30th. Otherwise, local groups are calling for a national boycott of Walmart stores.

I can’t promise to swear off Walmart forever, but at least for this holiday season, I can take my business to Target and other stores that treat their employees with respect and dignity—if I can find out which ones they are.

Where do you stand on this issue? I’d love to hear from you.

Christmas shopping-frenzy checkout

 

 

Everybody look what’s going down – Stills song still rings true

 There’s something happening here – what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Stephen Stills

Last week at The Egg, the crowd cheered when Stephen Stills sang the opening words to his classic song, “For What It’s Worth,” as his final encore. The lyrics ring as true today as they did 45 years ago when he wrote them for Buffalo Springfield, and he sang them with a gutsy sense of urgency.

You can find the lyrics in full at the end of this post, along with a surprising twist on the events that inspired them. But what motivated me to write about the concert was the vivid  memory of my encounter with Stills in1972. He was playing with his band Manassas at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in New York City, the same venue where I first heard the Rolling Stones. A man I can’t recall had scored tickets to the Manassas concert and a coveted invitation to the party that followed, and he invited me along.

The concert was excellent, but Stephen thought otherwise. At the party, in a high-rise apartment on the East Side, I found myself in a bedroom with him and numerous others. Various drugs were there in abundance – even opium – but for the most part, I wasn’t partial to those kinds of substances. Perhaps I’d had a bit too much to drink, though. Stephen was critiquing the concert, saying that the band had sounded shitty and the whole performance was crap. 

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” I remember saying. “You shouldn’t put yourself down like that; you sounded great.”  He mumbled something in reply, and we went back to partying. So much for that fleeting brush with fame. 

At The Egg 39 years later, he still had that same self-deprecating quality. He joked about his failing memory for lyrics, attributing it to drugs as well as aging. Mentioning Aspen, he said “I spent most of the time face down in the snow – no, wait, that was Miami.”  The 1980’s went by in a blur, apparently, but his recall of lyrics was just fine, and his guitar playing was excellent. 

His voice is beginning to fail, and he actually sang off-key at times, especially in the first set. Remembering the elegant harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash, I could barely believe it was the same singer. Even so, his raggedy voice has a lived-in quality that’s still compelling. Yesterday I heard the original Buffalo Springfield version of “For What It’s Worth” while I was driving to the YMCA, and his voice was much less expressive than it is today.

Researching Stills and the song online, I learned that although people consider it a protest song about the war in Vietnam and our society in general, in fact he wrote it about a riot on the Sunset Strip in 1966, protesting early curfews for the clubs. The title, “For what it’s worth,” comes from a conversation he had with Ahmet Ertugun of Atlantic Records – “Here’s a new song, for what it’s worth.” 

Even so, the song packs a powerful message today, especially as we approach the tenth anniversary of the Patriot Act:

For What It’s Worth

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, hooray for our side

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
You better Stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
You better Stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down 

The Sixties were a tumultuous decade. Fifty years later, as the gulf between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider and our Big Brother government has the wherewithal to track our every move, we’re on the verge of another seismic shift in our society. Stephen Stills is right: everybody look what’s going down. It may well be the country we used to call the land of the free.

So what can we do about it? As they used to say, “think globally, act locally.” Or, with an election year coming up, act nationally. Too bad it’s probably too late for a viable third-party candidate to come along, but let’s make ourselves heard.

Nursing home placement – another form of elder abuse?

Edward Munch Self Portrait

Elder abuse takes many forms. Nursing home placement may be a humane solution, but to many elders it feels like involuntary confinement. I was moved by Jean Henry Mead’s comment on my last post, about the 98-year-old woman who jumped to her death from a nursing home window. My own father experienced a similar sense of abandonment when my stepmother abruptly placed him in a nursing home without consulting the rest of the family.

I was in New York City in my ninth month of pregnancy when I got his furious call from Michigan. She’d betrayed him, he said, and he wanted a divorce. Although he’d suffered from mild dementia, the outrage triggered total lucidity. I’m also convinced it killed him, because a cardiac event – what doctors sometimes call a sympathetic storm – caused his death early the next morning, before my husband and I could help make alternate arrangements.

That wrongful death preyed on my mind for years, and ultimately swayed my decision to choose eldercare as a profession. The same is true of Claire Lindstrom, the protagonist of Eldercide, my novel of medical suspense, as you’ll see if you read to the end:

              The trilling of the cell phone was so subtle that the sound carried barely twenty feet from shore, harmonizing with the chirping of the sparrows and the soft cooing of the mourning doves. If not for her dog Freia, Claire Lindstrom would have missed it entirely, but the big blond Labradoodle was dancing on the dock, wagging happily as she bounced around the little black instrument of torture.

            “Good girl!” Claire murmured as she steered the kayak in for a landing. She’d taught the dog this silent pantomime in deference to the neighbors, most of whom didn’t appreciate being stirred from sleep by a salvo of barks, no matter how magnificent the sunrise.

            Setting down the paddle, Claire grabbed the cell phone and peered at the caller ID. The number was Harriet Gardener’s. 

            A shiver swept over her, despite the rising heat of the early September day. As nursing supervisor for a couple of dozen home care clients, Claire was accustomed to getting calls at all hours of the day and night. Call her compulsive, call her a workaholic, but she’d made it clear to everyone on staff that she wanted to be brought up to speed on anything out of the ordinary, no matter what the hour. Most of the clients at Compassionate Care were elderly, and many were gravely ill. The aides knew better than to leave Claire out of the loop when it came to making judgment calls about the people in their charge.

            But Harriet Gardener was in excellent health, physically at least. She suffered from mid-stage Alzheimer’s and needed supervision to prevent her wandering away or burning down the house with her absent-minded attempts at cooking. But she was strong, and she rarely came down with so much as a sniffle. For the time being, thanks in large part to her live-in aide Dahlia Douglas, her quality of life was excellent. But inevitably that would change. Although they tried not to show it, the fact that she was fated to endure many years of painfully slow decline, culminating in the eventual loss of all her mental and physical functions, distressed her overwrought family no end. . . .

 Halfway across the lawn, she had the cell phone out of the bag, her finger poised over the callback button. She jabbed the button as she set foot on the first step, and the phone was ringing by the time she reached the deck.

Dahlia answered on the third ring, her voice weak and shaky. “Harriet’s gone,” she stammered. “It must have happened sometime in the night.”

Claire’s heart sank. “But Dahlia, how could she get out without your knowing? Everything’s locked up tight. You sleep right across the hall from her, and I know you’re a light sleeper.”

“Not that kind of gone.” Dahlia’s careful diction had yielded to the earthy dialect she usually reserved for the other Jamaican aides, and the melodic lilt of her voice was incongruously at odds with her message. “She’s gone. I mean she passed. I don’t understand. She was fine when I tucked her in bed last night. She had such a strong heart, and you know how the family used to kid around with me. We thought Harriet would outlive us all.”

Just like my father. Claire shivered. She took Dahlia’s report, somehow got through the formalities, hung up. Then, suddenly wobbly, she sank onto a chaise. Nine years ago, on a flawless September morning much like this one, she’d gotten a call from the nursing home where he’d been admitted the day before, suffering from mild dementia. He had gone to bed ostensibly healthy, died sometime in the night. A previously undiagnosed cardiac problem, they said. Or, as Claire always thought of it, a broken heart. He’d been furious when her mother shunted him off to a nursing home against his wishes, vowed to get out if it was the last thing he did. He had fulfilled his vow, although not the way he planned.

He shouldn’t have died that way, abandoned and alone in an institutional bed. His death shocked Claire into abandoning graduate school and entering nursing. She found her way into home care, where she could help keep people away from those warehouses for the dying. All these years spent making amends, and now it had happened again.

 Read the entire first chapter of Eldercide here on my blog. You can order the novel from Amazon or directly from me – see the page on how to order my books for contact information. I did the cover illustration for Eldercide – perhaps you can see that Munch is one of my inspirations.

World Elder Abuse Day – a cause near to my heart

Reading Dear Abby this morning, I learned that today, June 15, is World Elder Abuse Day. It’s a subject close to my heart. As President of my own licensed home care services agency, ElderSource, Inc., I witnessed the extreme pressures that can lead to potentially abusive situations, even among loving families who are doing their best to provide quality care for their elders.* Unfortunately, most seniors are not nearly as well off as our clients were.

The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that as many as one in ten elders experience some form of abuse, but only one in five cases gets reported. They define elder abuse as “neglect, exploitation or ‘painful or harmful’ mistreatment of anyone 65 or older,” and the abuse can be financial, physical or psychological.

We’ve all heard the horror stories that surface regularly in the news – the abusive caregivers, the financial scams that can cost gullible elders their homes. Perhaps less obvious is the neglect that can stem from isolation, especially when dementia, mental illness or substance abuse are involved. Elders living alone, far from involved family, can suffer from self-neglect when they’re unable or unwilling to care for their own needs.

My 81-year-old brother in the Bronx has a wonderful support network of neighbors he’s come to know over 30 years in the same apartment building, but suburban neighborhoods of single-family dwellings don’t offer the same comfortable familiarity. Personally, I plan to age in place – our home is already too small for all our stuff, and I can’t picture downsizing any further. But it’s not a prospect I look forward to with great enthusiasm, and it’s all too easy to envision myself as a neglected recluse in some not so distant future.

What can you do to help prevent elder abuse, including self-neglect? First, learn more about how to recognize the signs and symptoms by visiting informative websites like the following:

Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect, University of California at Irvine (www.centeronelderabuse.org)

National Center on Elder Abuse (http://www.ncea.aoa.gov/)

Keep in contact with your older friends, neighbors and relatives so as to help decrease isolation, a risk factor for mistreatment. Be observant for signs of abuse or neglect.

Report possible mistreatment or neglect to your local adult protective services agency or to 911.

Contact your local Area Agency on Aging office to help identify possible sources of support like Meals on Wheels.

Volunteer, either formally or informally. With elderly neighbors living on either side of us, my husband and I drove them to doctors’ appointments and ran errands. I’m grateful for the stories they told me and the closeness we developed near the ends of their life spans, and I hope my own younger neighbors may reciprocate someday. More formally, as administrator for the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, I help educate people about affordable funerals and how to avoid one of the most common financial rip-offs that plague our seniors.

But why get involved in yet another cause, when there are so many clamoring for our attention? Because we’re all part of a beloved community, both globally and locally, and the person who needs your help may be as close as your next-door neighbor.

 *My experience as President and CEO of ElderSource inspired my novel Eldercide, which addresses the question, “When quality of life declines with age and illness, who decides if you’re better off dead?” The book explores elder abuse taken to the extreme, but fortunately it’s pure fiction – at least from my perspective. Unfortunately, the plot is all too plausible. You can read more about Eldercide on this site.