People and Places - March 2009

Edina senior confronts challenges and strives to help elderly

When Patricia Duffy enrolled in a college course a few years ago as a senior citizen, she triggered a startling comment from a young male classmate. “What’s an old lady like you doing in class?”

Her classmates and the professor were appalled. But instead of criticizing him, Duffy responded evenly. “Maybe I didn’t have the same opportunities you did. My parents couldn’t pay for my education. I’m from a family where there was a lot of illness and we kids had to work as soon as we were able to. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to attend college full-time. I hope you and I can grow together.”

She later invited the young man to chat over coffee. They became friends and he later apologized to Duffy in front of the class for his comments.

Now age 64, Duffy has many friends from her college classes. She also has succeeded academically; Duffy was selected fall semester 2008 outstanding student in Metropolitan State University’s First College, graduating with a 3.96 GPA.

More importantly, she’s counting on what she learned from her college course work to help make a difference in the lives of others, particularly the elderly. Many of her classmates aren’t likely to forget a tiny, energetic woman who has battled disabilities that would have thwarted most people from completing college.

Because of vision difficulties, Duffy requires special equipment that enlarges print on written materials. A volunteer from each class would take notes for her on a specially designed laptop computer. With no hearing in her left ear and minimal hearing in her right, she uses a receiver that boosts the volume from microphone-wearing instructors. Compounding matters, Duffy’s car was rear-ended this past spring, causing painful neck and spine hernias that require therapy seven days a week.

“But don’t call her disabled. ‘Disabled’ is something society labels you with,” said Duffy. “I can do everything it takes to be a successful student; I just need the right equipment.”

Duffy acts on a favorite adage of her grandmother’s at the end of several Metropolitan State classes. “She used to say, ‘When you cross someone’s path and you’re not sure you’ll meet them again, make certain you leave them with a little bit of wisdom, a whole lot of love and something sweet for the journey.’”

Duffy offers each classmate a handmade bookmark inscribed with this quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Then before students exit, she offers them a warm hug and presents a silver “LOVE” box with two chocolates inside.

“It’s surprising how much impact that has had on my classmates and instructors,” she said, recalling their touching comments and notes. “They don’t forget you.”

Duffy, whose individualized major focused on leadership service, health and spirituality, intends to assist the elderly as her latest career. She is currently participating in a leadership program through the Vital Aging Network. The program helps those 55 and older develop community initiatives, including those that aid the elderly. “I would like to eventually direct a special center for the elderly, where they are cared for in a holistic, family-type environment rather than an institutional setting,” said Duffy. “Too many facilities give the elderly three meals and a bed and are then pushed into a corner for the rest of the day much like a prison and that has to change. We must give the elderly the respect they deserve.”

Duffy’s many careers began in her native Delaware, where she was the state’s first female newspaper carrier. She worked for about 40 years in New York City as a senior executive secretary, administrator and a self-taught computer technician and instructor.

After arriving in the Twin Cities several years ago, she attended Normandale Community College, from which she graduated with academic honors in 2005. She was local and regional officer for the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society and attended a Summer Honors Institute at UCLA for the academically gifted.

Even with a crammed schedule, Duffy volunteers 70 or more hours monthly for organizations benefiting the elderly, including Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, Lutheran Social Services and who has also volunteered for Loaves and Fishes and Habitat for Humanity. She recently completed a Metropolitan State internship for the Minnesota Network for Abuse in Later Life.

“One of my passions is journeying with people in the end stages of life,” said Duffy, “There is a great need to be with those who have no one to be with them in their last days. The most important thing you can do is help them come to a place of inner peace and acceptance.”

Metropolitan State University, a member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, provides high-quality, affordable education programs for adults seeking baccalaureate, masters and doctoral degrees. It is the only state university in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Show adds a new co-host

Sheri Melander-Smith is the new co-host for CTV’s television show called Disability Viewpoints. Disability Viewpoints is an award-winning cable television program promoting disability services and programs throughout Minnesota. Mark Hughes has hosted “Disability Viewpoints” for 11 years and has covered topics on augmentative communication, special education, recreation for people with disabilities, Metro Mobility, voting machines to accommodate people with disabilities and much more.

Melander-Smith is consumer engagement specialist for “Cornerstone Solutions,” a product of MHP. She will begin her duties as co-host for the show starting in May 2009. Sheri will be bringing in a new perspective and will cover topics relating to lifestyles, careers and tips for healthy living in order to the best life possible with or without a disability. Disability Viewpoints can be seen on Community Television (CTV) 15 at 7:30 p.m. Monday nights. For additional viewing times visit www.ctv15.org