Caretaker Stands Up for Fayetteville’s Neglected

Caretaker Stands Up for Fayetteville’s Neglected
Staff Photo Nick Brothers Cayla Wilson (left) talks with Carol Jackson (center), and Loraine Wheat (right) before the Tuesday morning dance class starts.

Staff Photo Nick Brothers
Cayla Wilson (left) talks with Carol Jackson (center), and Loraine Wheat (right) before the Tuesday morning dance class starts.

People started to trickle in to the main ballroom of the senior center around 8 a.m. Some prepared for their morning workout, while others chatted with friends over coffee at one of the round tables. Cayla Wilson checked on the kitchen’s hot meal preparations and greeted everyone as they arrived, making sure newcomers were introduced to members of the ambassador committee.

At the Fayetteville Senior Activity and Wellness Center on South School Avenue, a first day can seem just as daunting as the first day at Jefferson Elementary School down the street. And just like at any school, the stakes are high. Social acceptance, physical fitness and mental health are top priorities. Here, the woman responsible for maximizing the quality of the lives of senior citizens is Director Cayla Wilson.

While the median age in Fayetteville is 27, nearly 8,000 households have residents 60 or older. This means senior citizens occupy 12 percent of the homes in Fayetteville.

Many of the center’s members were uprooted by their families from elsewhere, now living in small apartments or in a family home and had been left alone during the daytime.

“That’s sad. They have to start rebuilding their lives in their 70s or 80s,” Wilson said. “It’s like a first day of school here. I know that they’re scared. They don’t know what they are going to walk into. Insecurities — you know when you’re a teenager and you feel awkward and insecure — they go through all the way until you die.”

Wilson does it all. She speaks with federal and state legislatures. She runs fundraising campaigns (all of the center’s services are free). She assesses homes that may be eligible for daily hot meals. She helps with in-center activities and needs, including playing referee when it comes to disagreements among members from different generations, religions and sexual orientations.

“She has a knack for finding the funding and things we need. We like her,” said Nola Magee, a center member since 2009. “One thing I’ve noticed is if there’s a problem, she doesn’t put it on the shelf. She attacks it as fast as she can and in a diplomatic way.”

Before For Fayetteville’s civil rights ordinance vote Sept. 8, seniors at the center became heated over the issue of LGBTQ rights. Some members are atheist, gay and transgender as well as Christian. When a few started wearing For-Fayetteville shirts, others came with opposing signs. Wilson had to step in, as if to pull apart her children, before a brawl broke out.

“I would have to bring them in here (the office). They were so upset,” she said. “My atheist lady has bumper stickers that say different things and some of my Christians were sticking religious tracts all over her car. They are like kids in some respects, but you can’t treat them that way. They are adults.”

One perception that Wilson strives to alter is that aging seniors no longer contribute to society. More than four-in-ten of those ages 50 and older are regular voters, which is about double the 22 percent of 18-29-year-olds.

Yet in the U.S., acute ageism perpetuates a kind of throwaway society, Wilson argues, where seniors are severely undervalued and hidden away from mainstream media or any public spotlight. This has led many to be in denial of their age, refuse the help they need or to fall into devastating depression.

“Nothing defeats the soul more than the sense of being forsaken or about to be forsaken on the basis of an ascribed category that I cannot – that no one can – control,” said Dr. Margaret Gullette, cultural critic and prize-winning author, in her book “Age-wise: Fighting the New Ageism in America.”

Staff Photo Nick Brothers Cayla Wilson sits with the Double Elimination pool club at the Fayetteville Senior Activity Center.

Staff Photo Nick Brothers
Cayla Wilson sits with the Double Elimination pool club at the Fayetteville Senior Activity Center.

Wilson knows first-hand how difficult it can be to lift someone out of this type of breakdown alone. As she was on her way to becoming an interior designer – dreaming of moving to New York or maybe Chicago – her mother became ill with Alzheimer’s. She took weeks off at a time to drive down to Little Rock from Fayetteville and help take care of her mother. Wilson was shocked by how young her mother was to have such a fast decline mentally and physically.

“It was hard,” she said, “because she was active and to see her reverting back to an infantile state was incredibly eye-opening and very difficult.”

In contrast, Wilson’s grandmother lived just one month shy of her hundredth birthday despite having battled cancer and a disabling stroke. She learned how to walk, talk and do all major tasks over again, “but she was so mighty she just did it.”

Wilson completed her degree in art education at the University of Arkansas and in 2013 she left her recruiting job at Blue Cliff College to take the job at Senior Activity and Wellness Center.

She has also worked as a volunteer at the Battered Women’s Shelter and with the homeless, but Wilson recognizes she is not a therapist or a caseworker.

“My background is interior design, but I try my best to get them the help they need,” she said. “I have a heart for people who struggle and I have the knowledge and passion to help those people.”

Her mother died one month after Wilson accepted the director’s position at the center, and her grandmother passed the same year. Seeing two people in her life struggle with aging, one who pushed forward and one “who gave up and didn’t want to try anymore,” Wilson said pushed her to find the secret of helping others to do the former.

Her secrets to success are simple: getting the right exercise, nutrition and socialization. She makes it clear to everyone that her center is not a nursing home or a daycare. It is run by seniors for seniors. All of the regular volunteers are over 60 years old and many go to outside events — such as Bikes, Blues and Barbecue — to raise funds.

“She relates to just about everyone on any level and makes sure they know how to get involved,” said Georgia Childers, an active center member. “It’s important. If you volunteer and stay active you will live a longer life.”

Childers has been at the center since nearly the beginning of its 12-year run and was a small building on Sang Avenue. She said she has seen how Wilson has resurrected and grown the facility after the previous director faced financial difficulty.

Wilson also helps battle food insecurity, which affects about 17 percent of senior citizens in Arkansas according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ latest data. She is the director of Fayetteville’s Meals on Wheels. The operation is run out of the Senior Activity and Wellness Center’s kitchen each day with a skeleton crew of 10 people, only three working full time. The crew serviced over 230 meals on Sept. 23 and, Wilson said, average over 170 a day.

“She isn’t a micromanager,” head cook Barry Thomas said. “She puts in the long hours with us. She is very dedicated and positive, but not in a Barbie doll kind of way.”

Washington County Meals on Wheels Petal Poker Run

Get A Grip on Senior Hunger & Pancake Breakfast

When: Registration 8 to 8:30 a.m., starts at 9 a.m. Saturday, November 7, 2015

Where: Fayetteville Senior Activity Center, 820 S. College Ave.

Entry: $20 per hand in advance, $25 day of, extra hands $5 on entry.

For more information call 479-751-1521

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