Posted by Guide to Retirement Living SourceBook on 10/09/2017

Helping Hands

Helping Hands

It all started with a fall.

Sylvia Hays was on the front porch of her home in Reston, Va., when a simple fall changed everything. She had shared the home with her husband, Dr. Walter Hays, for decades, and the couple was happily aging in place. In just one instant, their entire lives were altered.

When Sylvia fell, she broke her hip and her wrist. Even after surgery and rehabilitation, she was not physically able to return home. After months of recovery, Sylvia is back on her feet. Both she and Walter are now residents of Tall Oaks, an assisted living community where Sylvia has been receiving the rehabilitation and care she needs.

“When my wife fell, our whole world changed in ten seconds,” Walter recalled. “Finally, after surgery and rehab for nearly a year, she has now relearned how to walk unassisted.”

Walter, who spent more than thirty years working for the U.S. Geological Survey studying earthquakes and volcanoes around the world, frequently compares Sylvia’s accident to an earthquake. “You have to prepare for an earthquake. Otherwise, you will have a really big mess on your hands,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for Sylvia’s fall either, but we found the help we needed.”

Although Walter retired from the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999, he still works as a physics teacher at Fairfax Christian High School. He plans to work at the school for one more year until the facility moves to a new location. Walter also prepares courses on global environmental disasters and earthquake preparedness for the World Health Organization and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following her accident, Walter quickly realized that he couldn’t care for Sylvia alone. Her injuries were both serious and extensive, and she needed professional care to make a recovery. Walter emphasizes that while it is impossible to fully prepare for accidents like Sylvia’s, it is important to know where to turn when the unthinkable becomes reality.

The Hayses turned to Tall Oaks, so Sylvia could get the help she needed and the couple could remain together. Over the course of the last year, both Walter and Sylvia have become very involved in the community.

“Sylvia has made a lot of friends. She wasn’t interested in participating at all in the beginning, but now she is really enjoying many of the activities. She is singing and rejoicing with her new friends,” Walter said.

For Walter, the move to Tall Oaks has also brought many new friendships—as well as a broader appreciation for every day. “I think living here has made me realize more that you need to do everything you can to make every day count,” he said. “I really appreciate the little things—conversations with my friends, reminiscing together—all those things matter so much to me as I get older.”

Both Sylvia and Walter have flourished in their new community–where residents share so much in common. Many of the residents share names, as well as backgrounds. From the same hometowns to the same career pursuits, residents find many areas to easily connect. And, of course, most have grandkids that they enjoy talking about and visiting with.

For Sylvia, helping other residents who are also recovering from injuries or illnesses has aided her own recovery. “Sylvia is now assisting other residents whenever she can. She really sympathizes with them,” Walter said.

“I didn’t expect this move, and I wasn’t totally prepared when we moved,” Walter recalled. “There is an adjustment period, but I always tell newcomers that it will work out, and they will be so happy. We certainly are.”

In addition to spending time with his new friends and continuing to teach, Walter has also become active in helping his fellow residents share their stories. Dr. Hays is partnering with Retirement Living Sourcebook and Herndon High School’s Writing Center to record the legacies of the residents of Tall Oaks. This project will match students in the high school’s advanced writing program with residents at Tall Oaks. The students will interview the residents and compose brief articles about their lives— focusing on capturing their legacies before they are lost. The student articles will be compiled into a book that can be shared with residents, families and visitors at Tall Oaks. The teachers at the writing center will then select one of the articles to be published in an upcoming edition of Sourcebook.

Tall Oaks has now become a family affair for the Hayses as well. Walter and Sylvia’s daughter, Marcie, is working at the community in the activity department. “She is one of three key people in the activities department, and she can sing and play the piano, and she is very popular,” Walter said. “It has been wonderful for us. We will be sitting at the dining table and someone that we’ve never met will come up to us and ask if she is our daughter and tell us how much they love her.”

Although the Hayses initially moved to Tall Oaks so Sylvia could heal, they found a true community, and they have quickly become an integral part of it. “Sylvia said to me just the other day that she really likes it here. She has made some good friends and that has made all the difference,” Walter said.

With professional care and rehabilitation, Sylvia is steadily improving and is now walking unassisted. She continues to get stronger—all because of the helping hands at Tall Oaks. For Walter, those same helping hands have given him the peace of mind that comes with knowing that his wife is cared for and that he can continue teaching and pursuing his various interests.

With the help of the staff at Tall Oaks, as well as the support of their new neighbors, the Hayses have found a home. Now that they have weathered their own emergency, both Walter and Sylvia are happy to offer their helping hands to their neighbors— whether they are opening a door or encouraging their friends to share their life stories. After all, sometimes a helping hand is all you need to feel at home.

By Christy Brudin


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