February 5, 2001
'Social Problems' hit
for Oxford class
By Michael Terrazas
As nice as Presbyterian Village is, Mike McQuaides students learn, its still a nursing home. As friendly as its staff, as soft as its carpeted hallways, as open as its groundsand this, the students were assured repeatedly, is as good as it gets for nursing homesPresbyterian Village is still a place where most of its residents go to die.
This is not an easy lesson for the 16 students shuttled out to Austell,
Ga., on a chilly, overcast day in early January that seems fashioned expressly
for the purpose of peeking in on the soft underbelly of Atlanta,
as McQuaide describes it. All but two are Oxford students (the remaining
pair are Emory College juniors via Oxford), and they all enrolled in McQuaides
Social Problems course last fall. This week, Jan. 814,
they are in town for a unique form of final exam.
Each year for the past 20, McQuaide, professor of sociology, has brought
his class into Atlanta for a week to observe in reality what the students
had heretofore only seen in textbooks. They stay in a hotel downtown and
pack into a van each morning for a different field trip. On this day in
Austell, they are visiting the Alzheim-ers unit at Presbyterian
Village, followed by a ride to the Roswell Funeral Home for a primer in
the business of death.
And thats just on Monday. The rest of the week includes jaunts
to such Atlanta tourist attractions as the Fulton County Drug & Alcohol
Treatment Center, Jackson State Prison, Grady Hospital and, last but not
least, the squad car of an Atlanta police officer for an eight-hour shift
in one of the citys most dangerous neighborhoods. They also listen
to lectures on female incarceration, guns and public health, Atlantas
air quality (or lack thereof) and infants born to drug-addicted mothers.
All in all, a normal week of school.
You know the old adage that emotion gets in the way of intellect?
McQuaide asked, referring to the day at Presbyterian Village, but the
sentiment could just as easily be extended to any other day of the trip.
In this case, I think emotion facilitates the intellect. The students
cant deny their own feelings.
In the nursing home, they listen to Lynn Alvarez describe how Presbyterian
Village operates, how much it costs, its different levels of care, the
way it tries to engage and evaluate its residents. And, just before they
leave, they hear how all of this can be downright shameful.
This country is weak and anemic in its ability to deal with physical
deterioration, said Jeff Mosier.
Music, he tells them, is often the one thing to which advanced Alzheimers
patients respond. Whatever destruction the disease wreaks on their brains,
for some reason it usually leaves the part that remembers music intact.
Take a great-grandmother whose mind has deteriorated to the point where
she forgets shes eating as shes lifting the fork to her
mouththis same woman will perk up and sing along when she hears
a church hymn shes sung all her life.
Mosier plays for roughly 20 minutes, alternating hymns like The
Old Rugged Cross with popular ditties like Take Me Out to
the Ballgame and Oh Susannah. He introduces himself
and makes a point to ask each patient his or her first name. Most respond;
some ignore him; some say they cant remember. Mosier keeps his emotions
to himself and continues smiling and picking his banjo.
In other countries, the elderly are put upon a pedestal,
Mosier says during the students debriefing session. In this
country, if youre 65, youre retiredwhich
is another word for dead.
Despite having worked at Presbyterian Village, Mosier makes no secret
of his contempt for the American tradition of applying the hospital model
to caring for the elderly. He challenges the students to question societal
norms, to consider what else might be done when their own parents grow
older becauseagain, they are remindedPresbyterian Village
is as good as it gets. And it doesnt get this good very often.
The students respond. Some agree with Mosier, some understandably bring
up the financial realities of caring for an elderly parent, and some stay
silent. But all leave Presbyterian Village with a deeper understanding
of the problem, and while they most likely will never come up with a solution,
they bring a more informed understanding to their studies and, possibly,
their future careers.
Still, when asked if the students do attempt to devise solutions to some
of societys most ancient ills, McQuaide chuckled. Over lunch.
In the van. While on the way [to a stop]. At night when we had our little
flannel PJs seminars to rehash what we did that day. Those wonderful,
spontaneous. Well, lets try this and If we just took addicts off
the street and Lets just put them all in detox.
There are times, McQuaide admitted, when I have to
stifle a guffaw. But what I always try to do is look for the merit in
the idea and try to tease it out.
For McQuaide, the flip side to showing students the reality behind the
labels of Drug Addiction and Crime is watching
their teenage idealism take its yearly beating.
Youve got to try to come in behind [the experience] with
something so it doesnt leave a gaping intellectual wound,
he said after the week was over. Because that wound can back up
against some sort of nihilism or cynicism, and I put a great deal of effort
into guarding against emerging cynicism.
I spent a great deal of time talking about positivism. I tried to encourage them to not get disgusted or disheartened by what they were seeing. And I constantly point out the effect one person can have. For example, Cafe 458, the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center [and one of the stops of the trip] was the dream of one person who brought that place into existence. So I try to inspire [the students] in a way that says, Yes, your feelings are hurt, but heres what some people have done in that regard.