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A Resident Founder Shares His Story – Yesterday and Today

Kendal at Oberlin resident Elizabeth Hole heard many wonderful stories when visiting fellow residents who now live in the Stephens Care Center. She decided to record and share some of these stories to portray the vibrant spirit of the people who live here. This first installation of “Voices from the Stephens Care Center” features founding resident and early board member, Ed Schwaegerle.

I originally started visiting residents in the Stephens Care Center, when I realized how much they enjoyed petting my sheltie dog, Spirit. After many visits, I began to wonder what life was like for those living in assisted living. Independent living residents often hear the frustration of downsizing and transitioning into the Care Center. We rarely hear how residents feel once they have settled into their new homes. What are their frustrations? Satisfactions? What is it really like to live there?

To find out, I talked with Ed Schwaegerle, who will turn 100 this April. He was one of the founders of Kendal. I wanted to learn more about his original vision for Kendal, how it has changed over time and whether it still applies to his life in assisted living today.  

Ed has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. He worked at BF Goodrich Chemical Company for 34 years and became their Director of Plastics Development. Ruth, his wife of 74 years, was active in their church and community and loved gardening, painting and needlework. They have a son, Kent.

Ed is a trim, tall figure, even confined to his wheelchair. His grey hair is carefully combed. For the last five years, he has been legally blind.  His room is arranged as a workshop with lots of counter tops for his projects and labeled boxes for his supplies. There is plenty of open space to allow his electric wheelchair to maneuver.

How did you get interested in helping  found Kendal at Oberlin?

ED: In late 1987, I received a phone call from Anita Reichard. She said that they were planning to develop a continuing care, retirement community here in Oberlin and that they had decided to work with the Kendal Corporation. They were ready to begin recruiting people, and they wanted me to help with my community of Elyria.

This sounded like a miracle to both Ruth and myself. We could hardly believe our ears. As the years had gone by, we had realized that someday we would have to give up our home because it was becoming more difficult to manage. For instance, our house had 174 windowpanes in the living room and dining room area. Each mullion needed to be painted inside and out every four years. Painting them just right gave me a lot of satisfaction – I enjoyed that. But it was a very high maintenance house. We had already looked at a different retirement community. Here was an opportunity to have a Quaker based community just 10 miles from our home!

How did the planning go?

In 1988, we visited  Kendal at Longwood, and that was an impressive community. So I said “yes” this is fine. That convinced me. The Quakers really do a good job. I was concerned about finances, but I was convinced by the integrity and the financial responsibility of the Kendal organization. I was impressed with the reliability of the whole Kendal project – that you could depend on it.

Kendal Corporation was very reluctant to come out to Ohio to work with us.  They felt it was too far away with too small a market. But the Oberlin people weren’t willing to take “no” for an answer. So, they reached an agreement where the Oberlin people would raise enough money to take care of the initial expenses of recruiting people, and Kendal would contribute a representative, once a month, to help conduct public meetings to publicize the idea. If the community was successful, Kendal would return the money, but if not, the money would be lost. But, 16 couples pledged $5,000 with no assurance that they would get any return. A lot of people put down money before we recruited anyone at all.  A real sign of faith.

What was your vision for Kendal?

My goal was to make Kendal at Oberlin the least institutional you could make it. I had no desire to move into a “community.” I am a loner. I like to be by myself. In most cases where there’s a couple, it is the wife who wants to move in. I didn’t want, every time I turned around, to be talking with people and saying pleasantries and niceties. I didn’t want to have to say, “It’s a nice day out,” all the time. So instead of getting on committees here, I got a job at the Oberlin College archives, and I worked there until my eyes gave out 13 years later. So, all together, it turned out better than I expected.

If you didn’t want to have to make pleasantries, how did you feel about going to dinner with other residents every night in the Fox and Fell?

Going to dinner was different. Ruth and I enjoyed meals and getting to know people. I wanted to really sit and talk. Of course, the women initiate the talking.

We moved in with the founding people on the second Tuesday and in the mud. The difference between moving in then and moving in today is that we already knew everybody because we had been coming to the meetings. We knew them at least casually and that made it nice. We felt we were a part of Kendal; we had helped create it.

So. it wasn’t hard to move the founding vision into Kendal because we had already worked together before we got here. We started with the committee system early, because we had already used it to found Kendal. The community was formed even before the shovel went into the ground. When we moved in, we maintained that same vision, sense of community and use of committees after we arrived. None of the other Kendals started with that same sense of building their own community.

The other thing was that the people who moved into Kendal from Oberlin were the type who like to have community more than the type of people who want more of a resort or a country club. 

This is not a country club. There are golf clubs nearby, and they have beautiful buildings and nice young women to escort you to your table and stuff like that. Some people like those kinds of amenities. Well, it’s nice, but that’s not what our people were interested in. We wanted to be sure that you didn’t have to wear a coat and tie to dinner. We didn’t want things done for us. We had created this community, and we didn’t want to give that up. We wanted to have the residents plan the programs. That’s what The Kendal Corporation believed, and so that’s why they were such a good fit.

Do you think Kendal has done a good job of maintaining the original vision, that sense of community? 

I hear people worry about maintaining the Quaker values. How did we do that? Well, the first thing we did was hire Barbara Thomas. She sets the whole tone. If she hadn’t pushed for new residents to share Quaker values, they would have gradually gotten watered down. And then it was the people she hired – what they felt about community and equality. So overall I’d say we’ve maintained Quaker values better than I expected. I’ve been very happy about that.

Earlier, you described not wanting to be institutionalized and yet you now live in the assisted living part of the Stevens Care Center. How does that work for you? Assisted living, by its very nature, supports you more. Are you happy here?

Yes, I’m happy here. I just read a book, Happiness is a Choice You Make. Whether you’re happy or not depends on you. There are a few people here that complain.  It depends on whether you see the glass half full or half empty.

Since I’m not a complainer, if a little something goes wrong, if the temperature is wrong, that doesn’t make me unhappy. Happiness is something you choose. In general, people hate to go into assisted living, to need more health care. Everybody hates that.

Kendal takes good care of us. They check our vital signs monthly.  This includes our weight.   One month, I lost 3 lb., and so they started weighing me every week to look into that.

So, I’m happy here and there are no big problems. I go down to the Fox and Fell dining room for dinner every night. I go to the Country Kitchen for breakfast, and it is right outside my door.  They cook the food right there and the environment is good. So, that’s why they love it.  At lunch, I usually eat in the Friends Corner. I’d just as soon eat by myself because I get enough community at breakfast and dinner.

Some people would like more help; they want the same nurse all of the time. It would be nice to have the same nurse or the same aide all the time, but, the same nurse can’t work all of the time. That doesn’t make sense.

Then, there’s the queuing problem. How long do you have to wait if you ring the bell until a nurse or aide comes? Kendal would like to respond in two minutes. But you can see that once in a while it will take longer. If you had twice as many staff, there would still be times when you’d have to wait.

We’d all like more help. But the help we have is equal to or better than other places. I feel that I work with the Kendal staff. But some people feel that they pay to be taken care of. It’s the way you look at it.

We also have this monthly staff/resident meeting where we are asked how things are going. I go to it to see who’s complaining about what. If something comes up, the staff really try to take care of it – absolutely! Stacy, the Chief Medical Officer, does a good job. In fact, when a complaint is brought up one month, at the next meeting, Stacy makes sure to go back and see if it’s been taken care of. So, Stacy really follows up on every issue.

What do you like best about being at Kendal? What gives you the most satisfaction?

I probably appreciate my privacy here the most. This is my room; this is my home. I’m doing fine here.  I stay active and motivated with my projects. I don’t have a problem with dead or down time. I’ve got things to do – more than I can get done. Isn’t that something? 

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