Thursday, October 6, 2011

Making "handicap accessible" camp

We weren't the kind of family to spend a summer vacation pitching tents and cooking over a fire, yet I grew up with a healthy respect for "making camp." Five kids, two parents and an Old English Sheepdog would pour out of two cars and stake our claim to what space we could, divvying up dresser drawers and unrolling bags onto sleeping porch cots. My older sister always claimed the cot nearest the screened-in wall that overlooked the lake; if we knew what was good for us, the rest of us didn't even try. Since youth I was drawn to physical obstacle—I'd wanted the top bunk in the room I'd once shared with my sister—so I chose the cot wedged deep beneath the angled beams. A night during which I escaped whacking my head was a night well-executed.

I'd use these skills when returning to the lake after my ankle fracture and subsequent hospitalization. The day after surgery my departure seemed imminent. Even as I was still hooked up to a variety of bags and machines a social worker stopped by my room to ask if my summer home would allow single floor living for awhile. Thanks to my Lifespan Design Studio friends Doug and Ellen, the answer was yes.

After Dave and I purchased the camp from my parents and determined the best way to save it was to pull most of it down and rebuild, we went back and forth on whether to include a first floor bedroom. It would increase the footprint and the cost, pointed out my eighty-year-old father. "Don't do it for your mother and me," he said. "When we can't do stairs we'll stop coming to the lake." I thought of my grandmother, and the many years my uncle parked her wheelchair on the porch so she could continue to take in the view she so loved. My dad may not want that bedroom, but I did.

Once architect Doug was in on the project, he was all for the downstairs bedroom—so much so that he added a wheelchair-width doorway into the room and another into the downstairs bathroom. Because they embrace the philosophies of universal design, Doug and Ellen encourage the kind of forward thinking that allows people to stay in their homes despite future health challenges. The wall sink I wanted to re-use for reasons of nostalgia, Doug pointed out, would perfectly suit someone approaching the sink in a wheelchair.

I had thanked my dad for his input but told him Dave and I planned to add the downstairs room. "Anyway, you know me—I'll probably use it first, after breaking my leg or something." From then on, no matter where Dave and I slept in the camp, when referring to that room my mother called it "Kathy and Dave's room." It could accommodate my folly, but would never touch her aging.

Six years later, my father now deceased after negotiating the camp stairs until the end of his life, I was facing that exact circumstance. Our foresight made the summer home an even more welcoming environment than my permanent residence in Pennsylvania, a three-floor town home that kept me fit while in full orthopedic health but which now provided an imposing challenge. An added bonus at the camp: my cousin had purchased a classy commode for her aging mother to use while visiting one year and had left it behind "for our use." How we'd grumbled to see it fill up so much of the newfound closet space in our rebuilt camp. It was the first thing I told Dave to set up.

Dave drove home with me strapped into the back seat of our Ford Contour, facing sideways with my leg propped up on a pillow. When we got to the lake Dave pulled onto the lawn so he could deposit me right beside the front porch. He pulled my walker from the trunk, snapped it into the open position, and helped me pull myself from the car.

Now what?

I faced the first of many challenges to come: the step up onto the front porch. I stood there with my walker, the clock ticking—gravity was creating an inferno in my foot—with no clue how to negotiate it.

Now that I've had a bit more experience I think I'd turn the walker around and push down on it while hopping up backwards, but I wasn't feeling like such a monkey that day. The youngster who once loved the obstacle course and scrambling into her cot beneath the lowest beam was now completely stumped by a four-inch step. Through some sort of ugly push-me-pull-you Dave and I got 'er done, but I was already realizing how hard the next few months were going to be. I was so thankful for the design of the camp: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, porch: everything I'd need, close together on one floor.

As I made my way to the couch on the porch to prop my leg up so I could eat the take-out we'd picked up on the way home, Dave honored my new reality by helping "make camp": one by one, he pulled all the area rugs from my path. Perhaps the opposite of the "red carpet" treatment, but in my new reality, just what the doctor ordered.


Jerry Waxler said...

Proof that with well crafted writing, ordinary life can turn into a lovely, intimate reading experience. Thanks for sharing yourself so generously. Not coincidentally these little "post 50" problems will become more important to many of us, so we might as well bring them out of the closet and let it rip. (Aging is the last frontier. See Diana Athill, "Somewhere toward the end." Not to say you're getting old... But I know I am.)

Memory Writers Network

Lisa R. Tomarelli said...

My favorite insight about this blog is the fact that the lake home continues to nurture you, beyond your own imagination. I love that place, and I'm not even a Graham! Amazing foresight with the one-floor design and handicap accommodations. It's an example of planning ahead that proved fruitful; such a treat when we are unable to be in control of our destiny most of the time.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks, Jerry, I agree. This experience has made me see many things through a different lens, which was the main reason I decided to feature my experience here. I've found that what I don't write about, I don't enter into fully enough.

Kathryn Craft said...

Lisa: Love built that camp in the late 1800s, and shaped it so many way through the decades--and lord knows only love kept it standing for the hundred+ years of its existence--it didn't even have a foundation! Even with the new design, its spirit seems intact, as you've witnessed.

donna galanti said...

Kathryn, I just love how you blended the history of your family camp with today's life experiences - good and bad. Your camp seems like a living breathing must have nurtured you over the years with life's ups and downs. What special memories to have and to wrap all around you as you live there now, even when sudden injury strikes! I cant wait to visit - JUNE!

Kathryn Craft said...

Donna: The camp is very special in the way it carries our collective family memories forward--most everyone who visits comment upon this, even in its renovated state. June, indeed!! :)

Doug Gallow said...

Just read your blog. Thank you for an honest, real world testimonial. When life hits you hard it’s nice to think that someone planned that it might happen. That’s our goal, and we are very proud to have been a part of your camp!


Kathryn Craft said...

The bathroom you designed gave me plenty of room to put a stool next to the sink. I could sit on it to brush my teeth, and kneel on it to create a "leg" on my injured side to wash my face—yet still had plenty of room to maneuver around it. Of course we pulled up the rug and stowed it away--trip risk!