Written by Kate Rogers
Photos by Kevin Heffernan
Designed by Drew Brown
Article is produced in cooperation with Aging by Design and the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York
Rose Pulvirenti strikes me as a woman doing anything but waiting out her days.
Despite the fact that she says the broad sense of possibility in her life is over, at 75 she’s an active member of her retirement home community in Gowanda, NY and a vibrant personality. Rose spends one day a week working in her residence’s Country Store, part of the Healthy Community Alliance’s effort to provide access to food for seniors who otherwise can’t get around the community. She is kind, leaning on her walker and stopping to smile at her fellow residents, asking them how their day is going as she loads their bags with cans of peas and boxes of pasta in the tiny fluorescent-lit pantry. You see, Rose is very, very passionate about communication. Seeing people for who they really are, and connecting with that part of them, is critically important to how she interacts with the world.
Rose is extremely visually impaired – as in, she needs a magnifying glass to read. She tells me she never felt like she belonged in any one place as a kid and always felt like an outcast growing up. That feeling of not belonging, combined with her lack of sight, has helped her learn how to better assess people, to step back and take in the whole person before she places her trust in them. She’s honed her sense of intuition and relies more heavily on strong communication to make her way in the world now. Since she is unable to get around the way she used to, Rose relies on assistance from others (like the staff at the Healthy Community Alliance) to get groceries, hail rides into town and to do a lot of the daily activities in her life that used to come so easily.
It’s hard for Rose to ask for that help – as it would be for any of us who are accustomed to independence. Rose doesn’t like “putting someone out” – she’s always been self-sufficient and completely autonomous. She’s worked all her life, she raised a family, put food on the table and has spent a literal lifetime taking care of others. But she has learned humility through the experience of losing her sight. She understands, now that she doesn’t have the capability to do things on her own, that “alone, we are not that much.” Rose believes that a firm foundation and sense of who we are as people, as well as the humility to know when we need to ask for help, is essential for all humans. Rose finds strength in her faith; something she didn’t have in abundance when she was young, but that she gleans all her support and strength from now. She also finds solace in connection – in doing for others, and allowing others to do for her.
At this point in our conversation, Rose closes her eyes, her face thoughtful, hands clasped at her chest.
“If I could tell anyone younger one piece of advice, it would be to get over yourself. Seriously. It’s such a me-centered world. If there was more gratitude, we would all get along and communicate better with one another.” Then her eyes snap open and she waves her arms like she is holding a flag. “Everybody needs a communication class!” she shouts passionately. I watch her whole being light up. “People don’t communicate anymore! People talk, but they don’t know how to listen. Communication is broken. Ignorance is such a problem – how can we grow if we don’t know?”
Rose has grown and learned and not always taken the straight and narrow path on her journey through life. She’s had experiences that have pushed her, met people who have hurt her and known complications and hardships. She has been humbled and learned fully that we are stronger together. And her message is this: She is here. She wants to listen. She wants to offer the wisdom her story has provided her to anyone who might benefit from it. She wants to matter.
“My heart just breaks for people. I just wanted to be loved and accepted for me. Not for what I could do for someone, but for me. As a human. Everybody needs to be loved. We all need to love more. While there is breath in my mouth, I want to say [this]: ‘Love each other. Communicate. Listen.’”
We could all do with a little more of Rose’s spirit. So the next time you find yourself in Gowanda, stop by the Healthy Community Alliance’s Country Store. With any luck, Rose will be there, her soft smile at the ready, ears and heart open, ready to talk frankly and honestly about anything you’d like to know, affirming that we all matter. We are all loved.
To learn more about Rose’s story, and the work Healthy Community Alliance is conducting, including a video interview with in Gowanda, head to: risecollaborative.com/rise/life-working-driving-rural-wny/