Tea party offers up a cup of companionship

Barb Chamblin provides tea, dessert and topics of conversation for women attending her Tea and Talk parties in the Memory Care Unit of Santa Marta Retirement Community in Olathe. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JILL RAGAR ESFELD

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

OLATHE — Cecile Rasmussen remembers “peregrinating” with her father when she was a very little girl back in Georgia.

A petite golden-ager with a gracious demeanor that recalls a time of mint juleps on the veranda, Rasmussen loves sharing her memories of long ago.

“He was an author,” she said of her father. “I don’t know if that’s a real word (peregrinating) or one he made up, but it meant we would go walking together.

“Dad loved to walk — and I was his partner.”

“Peregrinating” is a real word. And Rasmussen’s father LeGarde Doughty was, indeed, a prolific author and poet hailing from Georgia.

Rasmussen remembers him well. But when asked what brought her to Kansas, she isn’t sure.

Katie Zahner, who sits beside Rasmussen, helps out by suggesting, “You probably moved for your husband’s job — that’s the way things were back then.”

“Yes,” says Rasmussen. “That must have been it.”

The gathering

It’s a typical Sunday afternoon at the Ladies Tea and Talk held in the memory-care unit of Santa Marta Retirement Community in Olathe.

The brainchild of Church of Ascension, Overland Park, parishioner Barbara Chamblin, the teas are held twice each month.

They’re a way for women here, who are challenged with memory deficiencies, to bond and help one another recapture the past.

Chamblin takes notes at each tea and delights in the stories these women share.

Though participants have health issues and struggle with lapses in recollection, they are a lively group whose members haven’t forgotten how to laugh.

When it comes time to choose a tea, Zahner quips, “I’d like the one with the scotch in it.”

Called to serve

Two years ago, Chamblin was reading her parish bulletin and saw a notice for the Santa Marta board of directors.

“And I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to be on a board of directors,’” she said.

But Chamblin did feel the message was meant for her; she felt called to do something at Santa Marta.

“I knew no one over there,” she said. “I didn’t know who was in charge of the place, but I pursued it because I thought there was a purpose, something I could do.”

Chamblin has spent her life as a caregiver. She’d been married 44 years and raised three daughters while pursuing her career — first as a social worker and then as a registered nurse.

She’s always been active in the Catholic community and said her desire to help others is influenced by her pastor’s philosophy of service.

“I’ve always been inspired by Monsignor Tom Tank,” she said. “I think his message to us as a parish is to serve others.

“And, so I’ve always thought, ‘What can I do?’”

Chamblin called Santa Marta and began volunteering there by calling the weekly bingo games. But she wanted to do more.

“I was asked by the activities coordinator to help acclimate a new resident who was going through an adjustment phase,” she said.

That’s how she met Rasmussen.

“I developed a friendship with her,” she said. “And between the two of us and one other founding member, we developed the Tea and Talk group.”

The group consists of anywhere from six to 10 women from the memory-care unit.

Chamblin’s mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and, as she declined in health, lived with Chamblin and her husband.

“So, the memory unit, people who are declining and needing to be supported, is something I’ve always cared about,” she said.

Sharing and supporting

Tea and Talk takes place every other Sunday afternoon and usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Chamblin brings a variety of teas and serves them in beautiful porcelain china cups, with pretty napkins.

“I just try to make it as girly as possible,” she said.

She also supplies sweet treats to share.

“I’ve always enjoyed the confection area of baking,” she said. “I try many recipes and they’re really good about giving me their opinions.

“They love to do that.”

Sometimes, the tea parties take place in a lounge area of the memory unit, but often one of the women will offer to host the event in her small apartment.

“Some women, because they used to host their own parties, love to be the co-host,” said Chamblin. “Sometimes they’ve brought their daughters and one invited her son who happened to be up for a visit.”

Chamblin always supplies a topic for discussion, and she is so inspired by some of the conversations that she keeps a journal.

“The stories they tell are so rich,” she said.

Subjects are varied, and discussions range from politics to home life. The women find camaraderie in the many life experiences they share.

“Everybody is on a different level,” said Chamblin. “There are some very alert women that can speak and interact well.

“There are others who are a little withdrawn, they can’t recall, but they just put in whatever feels appropriate.

“The group supports them; everyone recognizes that we’re on different levels.”

Life lessons

Often, the talk turns to faith.

And though not all the women are Catholic, they all share a deep belief in God and an afterlife.

“It’s amazing what I’ve learned from them and just the comfort that comes from being with this age group,” said Chamblin.

One insight Chamblin has gained from her experience at Santa Marta is that “it isn’t easy to be born, nor is it easy to grow old and die.”

But she values the life lessons she has learned from her Tea and Talk group.

“If I can grow old as gracefully as these women have,” she said, “then I’ll be fortunate.

“All of them seem to appreciate the next day, the little things in life. They find the richness in something.

“And they’re not complainers.

“They don’t dwell on regrets; they move forward.”

Tea and Talk is a fluid group and Chamblin is always checking with staff to see if any new women might be interested in joining them.

The group appreciates the effort Chamblin puts into their gatherings — though, at first, they weren’t sure why she sought their company.

“It took them a while to understand why I was coming here,” she said. “They wondered who in this group was my mother.”

“Now they know,” she added. “They’re my friends; that’s why I’m here.”

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