Lessons From the Male Solarium

Along with my work with CLASS, I have been a long time board member of SWPPA (Southwestern PA Partnership on Aging), a nonprofit, advocacy group focused on aging and disability issues.  This work with SWPPA takes me back to my roots, where my first job in human services, way back in 1970, was at Kane Hospital in Pittsburgh.  When I first started at Kane, there were some 2,000 residents, mostly elders, is a large, gothic facility in the south hills. of Pittsburgh.

Working at Kane Hospital was a powerful experience for me for a number of reasons.  One was that it introduced me to the negative effects of institutionalization.  At Kane, I saw seemingly warm and compassionate professionals treat residents as objects or commodities.  These staff were not malicious, but there is something about institutionalization that can turn a warm heart, cold.

My first assignment was in an area of Kane, called the "male solarium."  This was a long, narrow wing of the hospital that housed over 500 patients.  Across from the male solarium, through a courtyard, was the female solarium exactly the same.  My job was as the male solarium social worker, and to cater to the residents needs, working with them individually and their families.  The average age of my 500 clients was 83.

As I wandered back and forth in this male solarium, for the 3 years I worked there, I can still hear the pleas of the residents.  They all wanted to go home and be with people they knew or loved rather than to stay in this facility.  I reacted to these pleas with countless phone calls to families, most who just did not have the capacity to care for their relative.  Certainly some situations were medically complex and the families were just not equipped - but these were exceptions.  Most of the rejections I heard were that the family had to work, and did not have the time, space, or wherewithal.

The other lesson from the male solarium introduced me to the wisdom and amazing experiences these folks had in their lives.  I would have individual conversations as well as group activities that would just amaze me.  I came to wonder who was helping whom.  It also saddened me in that this wisdom and life experience I was privileged to experience was locked inside the walls of that solarium

Today, some 48 years later, I continue to advocate for all people who are isolated, devalued, or institutionalized.  But these experiences, honed in the male solarium, were life-shaping for me.  In a personal way I learned that the more these folks are liberated to be a part of our communities, and to have opportunities to build relationships, the better we will become as a culture.