Wisdom of the Ages. . .Now on Stages

My 80-year-old father in South Florida is a pretty sharp guy, even if he did assume that the DVD player I bought him earlier this year was going to allow him to access the Internet. But he has received phone calls from scam artists posing as telemarketers that were so tempting that he almost took the bait. The enticements? Give us your Medicare number so we can facilitate your paperwork. Allow us to review your hospital bills so we can make sure they’re accurate.

These are attractive inducements given the reality that he’s a year older than the Great Depression and thus spends a lot of time dealing with medical paperwork. Advanced Sudoku? Child’s play compared to some of the forms he wrestles with. Moreover, there are moles making moguls out of my lawn that have better eyesight than he does. He can still drive a golf ball straight down the middle of the fairway, but it’s even money whether he’ll ever be able to find it. And so the idea that someone wants to parachute into his life and take over all that paperwork is enormously appealing to him.

It’s also, more likely than not, a con.

The other day I watched a small theater troupe make exactly that point to 25 residents of Grand Way Commons Senior Housing in South Burlington. The group, “COVE‘s Savvy Senior Theatre Troupe,” uses comic skits to illuminate some of the more widespread forms of healthcare and telemarketing fraud that confront the elderly. They also highlight some common sense rules for living: Don’t take other people’s prescription medicine. Review your Medicare charges. Know who the people are who are assisting with your care in your house and have access to your medicine cabinet. I had a terrific time and, along with the seniors, found myself nodding in recognition.

The program is the brainchild of Anita Hoy, an executive with the Community of Vermont Elders (COVE) — a statewide advocacy group for seniors — and Syndi Zook, executive director of the Lyric Theatre Company of Vermont. Prior to coming to Lyric, Zook spent nearly two decades running the Champlain Senior Center in Burlington. “This is the perfect mashup of my two passions — theater and helping an aging population,” Zook said.

Most of the five-minute skits are written by Ken Wolvington, an 80-year-old General Electric retiree and Lyric veteran. COVE tells Wolvington what issues they need to have dramatized and Wolvington takes it from there. The challenge is to create something that’s part “Saturday Night Live” sketch and part “Dateline” expose. He also needs to create material that works with a performance team of five senior citizens, all of whom are amateurs, volunteers, and coping with calendars that don’t allow for a lot of rehearsal time or memorization. Still, Wolvington said he loves the program: “I enjoy acting under any circumstances. But it’s especially fun to entertain and interact with my peers.”

The demand for the group is high. They’ve performed 33 times in the two years since they were founded, and COVE has now created a second troupe of actors to handle the requests in central Vermont. “People are calling up for them all the time,” according to Dolly Fleming, COVE’s executive director. “People all over the state want them to come.”

Given the audience reaction at Grand Way Commons, I’m not surprised. Grand Way resident Nancy Baker invited the group and said afterward, “I am so happy I brought them in. I’d have them back in a second. Everyone was completely delighted.”

It was only after the troupe had left that it crossed my mind to ask: Any plans for a touring company in South Florida? I know an 80-year-old golfer with failing eyesight and my last name who would have gotten a real charge out of the group — especially if they could teach him the difference between a computer and a DVD player.

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To bring “COVE’s Savvy Senior Theatre Troupe” to your community, contact either Anita Hoy at 888-865-2683 or Syndi Zook at 658-1484.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 28, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.