Community Portrait: An Auburn elder cherishes relationships that endure

By: Story and photo Michael Kirby
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At 92 years, Ben Slater currently lives at Almond Gardens Elder Care in Auburn and is well liked by the other residents and staff. This story is sort of a love story, though Slater probably does not want to admit it. You see, Slater has a girlfriend, though he doesn?t call her his girlfriend. Viola ?Vi? Soderstrom, who is also in her 90s, met Slater at The Oaks of Auburn Assisted Living Facility where he lived with his wife. The three shared a dinner table often at the Oaks. Slater?s wife passed away and Slater needed additional care and he moved to Almond Gardens Elder Care. Since his move two years ago, Soderstrom has been very good in remaining friends and keeping in contact with Slater. She occasionally visits and calls him every day at exactly 9 a.m. The calls never last longer than a minute because a throat condition limits Soderstrom?s ability to talk very long. ?From her I learn what day it is,? Slater said. He won?t admit it but staff members say he looks forward to her daily calls. Slater is a World War II U.S. Army veteran who served in Italy, France and Germany. According to his daughter, Benni Seeley, Slater had several jobs during his working career, one of which was Baptist lay minister in the ?60s and ?70s. During this time a poem came to him in a dream, a special poem that he then wrote down. The poem, entitled ?I?m Just a Vagabond,? describes a conversation between a weary human body and a very much alive spirit explaining the limited time they will share their body until the spirit moves on to an eternal heavenly home. The poem touched many and offered comfort over the years as Slater often read the poem at memorial services he presided over. ?My dad was sort of the unofficial chaplain when he was at the Oaks of Auburn. He even had a name tag saying ?chaplain,?? Seeley said. Slater was often requested to conduct memorial services for residents who passed away at The Oaks. The poem had quite an impact on many residents at the facility, including Soderstrom. She came across a copy of Slater?s poem and mailed it to him at his new home where it now hangs on the wall. It?s been two years since Slater moved to his new place in Downtown Auburn, and Soderstrom?s calls are still special, although Slater seems a little embarrassed by the female attention. He tears up just a little though when he talks about her and her calls. For a couple of young hearts in older bodies, it?s heartwarming to see the close companionship that these two have in their later years. It?s refreshing to know that love and special friendships can happen and are needed at any age and love is not restricted to the young. Hearts can still be warm with special relationships no matter what age you are. Finding a special bond and caring for another person can happen when you least expect it. A short excerpt from Slater?s memorable poem follows: ?It?s not that I don?t love you ? Of our memories I?m most fond, Please understand, dear body, I?m just a vagabond. I was made to wander, I was made to roam. Please understand, dear body, You?re not my final home.?