The Triumph of a Painted Wall

By The Weinberg Staff

Sara wanted a yellow wall. When she moved in to her room in an assisted living community, the walls were all painted white. Yellow, the color of sunshine, would make the room feel like hers, and like home.

Sara seems like the kind of person who lives in a brightly colored home. At 72, her colorful outfits are always accessorized with bright, dangly jewelry. She is a regular practitioner of yoga and tai chi. A deeply connected Christian, she travels frequently to the nearby church. An avid reader, she loves to strike up conversations with other residents about books she's read, and to exchange recommendations. With her quick smile and friendly demeanor, it would be obvious to anyone meeting Sara today that white walls just aren't her style. The decision to paint would seem ordinary, the typical process that people go through to make a new house into a home.

For the Weinberg Center team, who have known Sara since she arrived at the Hebrew Home as an elder abuse shelter client three years ago, Sara's desire to paint her walls yellow is anything but ordinary. Sara arrived at the shelter after enduring decades of severe abuse from her mentally ill daughter, Rachel. Rachel stole Sara's money, screamed and cursed at Sara incessantly, keeping Sara awake all night and rendering her unable to function at her job. When she could get to work, Sara was hounded by incessant phone calls from her daughter, continuing to blame her mother for all the problems in her life. Rachel brought "friends" off the street to sleep in Sara's apartment, and Sara was sexually assaulted by two of them. Sara never told the police. She never told anyone. Over the years, Sara's family members, friends and romantic partners were all driven away by Rachel, and Sara's consistent decisions to prioritize and protect Rachel. With isolation, the abuse intensified. One night, Rachel locked Sara in the bathroom and set the apartment on fire. The next week, Sara was rushed to the hospital after a suicide attempt. She was transferred from the hospital to the Weinberg Center.

For months after she arrived, Sara refused to open the curtains in her room. Instead, she preferred to lie in the darkness, sometimes going days without getting out of bed. When she did agree to speak with Weinberg Center social workers and attorneys, she answered questions monosyllabically, and seemed entirely uninterested in planning for the future.

Yet, over time, Sara's sprit began to shine through cracks in her depression and years of abuse. She began to engage more frequently with the Weinberg Center social worker, who she began to trust. She started regular therapy with one of the Hebrew Home's geriatric psychologists, who she saw would be able to hold and help her move through her pain. Sometimes she even ventured out of her room to eat with her neighbors, who she found were kind and welcoming, and to walk to the art studio, where she painted and made jewelry. With the help of the Weinberg team, she began to reconnect with long-estranged family members and friends, going out with them for long lunches and trips to the city.

Sara had no home in the community to return to, but, as she began to return to life, it was clear that she did not need the medical care the Hebrew Home provides to its residents. And so, two years after her arrival, Sara moved to an assisted living community. The move was a critical step towards independence, and her insistence on painting her wall yellow, on filling her days with the color of the sunshine that she once couldn't bear to see, was a symbol of the courage and triumph of her spirit.