OKC's Grace Living Center residents volunteer with Touchtones

There's a certain group of people at an Oklahoma City nursing home who rarely get bored. They answer phones, plan birthday parties, deliver mail and always offer a warm smile. But these lively folks aren't employees. They're residents.


Known as Touchtones, the group has been doing this kind of volunteer work at Grace Living Center, 3233 N.W. 10th, since last fall, in an effort to calm some of the chaos administrators formerly faced to make the nursing home a brighter, cheerier place for all its residents.

"We came here to live, not to roll over and die," said Touchtone member Jeannette Reading, the group's correspondence clerk. "Doing the Touchtones really helps keep your mind active. A lot of people have that impression of nursing homes "¦ that they go to them to roll over and die. That is not the case here."

Administrative assistant Sue Hitt started the group of about a dozen residents last year and has directed it ever since. To join the group, Hitt requires members sign an agreement in which they promise dependability, good personal hygiene and a positive attitude.

"If, for some reason, you're not going to be able to volunteer for that day on your work, then I'm supposed to know it," Hitt said. "It's communication. We have to communicate with each other just like you do in the real world."

The Touchtones also serve as door greeters for the center's guests, help interview and give a say on the home's potential employees, and lead residents to and from lunch if they need assistance. They even help host Sunday night Bible studies with a local minister. Group members agreed they enjoy the sense of responsibility and autonomy they have found through their jobs.

"We wanted to give some of the residents some things to do, to keep them from getting bored," said Don Walker, the lead Touchtone. "It gives us something to do every day. We've got to be at work."

Residents who wish to become a Touchtone must audition for the position, which includes talking clearly on the phone and displaying the ability to write a message, he said. Shift times vary based on capability, but most members work one or two hours at a time.

"This group does everything well," Hitt said. "They definitely take ownership in their home."

The Touchtones aim to make the center a homier place to live, whether that means acknowledging a fellow resident's birthday with balloons, a card and a song, or mourning their death. Reading said the group sends a balloon into the sky, along with a prayer in memory of anyone who passes away.

"We are one, big, happy family. When we lose one member of our family, we make sure we send out a sympathy card to the family, because we want them to know that we miss that member, because that person was a member of our family whether we knew them that well or not," she said.

The Touchtones also hold fund-raisers, such as bake sales and dances, to support group activities, like field trips and parties. Touchtone Jack Anderson even helped start a library in the center.

"He talked the administrator into getting bookshelves, and we found a bunch of books and put the library back in the back dining room, so it is working real well," Walker said.

The structure and organization of the home has improved dramatically since the Touchtones began their work. Since a member is always available to answer the phones, doctors and families can get through more easily, Reading said.

The Touchtones aren't the only aspect of Grace Living Center that make it unique. One of many Grave Living Centers in Oklahoma, the site operates under the philosophy of the Eden Alternative, ideals that focus on resident-centered care and creating an environment that honors elders by addressing loneliness, helplessness and boredom. It places decision-making power in the hands of the elders, in favor of traditional bureaucratic authority.

"You haven't seen another nursing home like this. There's only one other in Oklahoma City, and they've just begun," said Betty Martin, Touchtone phone operator. "We go to bed when we want to. We get up when we want to. They have a menu, but they also have alternatives. If we don't want the menu and we don't want the alternatives, the dietaries will talk to us and come up with something that we want to eat. We can eat any time of day we want to. I've had chicken noodle soup at 3 in the morning."

The Touchtones have essentially created a family within their home, Martin said.

"We have two families: We have our Grace family, and we have our biological families," she said. "My family comes quite a bit, but some people's families can't come like mine do. So we get very, very close."  "Caitlin Harrison

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