Still Blowing His Own Horn in a Retirement Community
The phrase “blowing his horn” takes a literal meaning with Benjamin Nickson. Although he has accomplished much in his life worth “blowing his horn” about, he has a low-key authentic personality. Ben has literally been playing his trumpet for 75 years, yet he sheepishly shares, “I am a wannabe trumpet player.” However he may refer to his talent, Benjamin can be seen continually practicing at Grand Oaks, an independent and assisted living residence on the campus of Sibley Hospital in Washington, D.C.
It is a fitting home for Benjamin, who was actually born at Sibley and has remained a true Washingtonian over the years. Having grown up in Northern Virginia, he eventually graduated from Western High School in the District in 1943. He was immediately drafted into the Navy, but left in 1945 to attend Syracuse University, where he studied Business Administration and Accounting. Following his graduation in 1949, Ben attended Harvard Law School.
“I graduated and passed the bar, but after all that I decided that I didn’t want to practice law. I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says.
Ben then got a job with an accounting firm and passed the CPA exam, but found himself again confused with his career path. “I didn’t like that particularly either,” he says. “I was just lost.”
Eventually, he decided to return home to Virginia and work with his father who ran a small accounting firm, but according to Ben, that job also turned out to be temporary. It was then he got married, had two children and took a job with the Federal Government where he spent most of his career. He retired from his position as a budget analyst in 1986 and was awarded the Navy Department meritorious civilian service awards.
After retiring, Ben and his wife went through a series of moves from McLean to Arlington, progressively downsizing each time. Then Ben’s wife started to have a variety of health and mobility issues. She was interested in exploring the idea of moving to a retirement or assisted living community, whereas Ben says, “I didn’t want to.”
At that time, Grand Oaks was under construction, and the Nicksons’ daughter suggested that they take a look. Reluctant, Ben says he had told his wife, “Honey, we will never go there, we will never be in assisted living.”
Regardless, she decided that she wanted to continue with the move, and the couple officially became residents of Grand Oaks in 2002.
Although he had been hesitant, the transition taught Ben a valuable life lesson. “The funny thing is that sometimes you don’t look ahead; you think that everything will be the same and there will be no change,” he says. “One big lesson in life that I have learned is that changes occur, some good, some not so good.”
And through the changes of his wife’s declining health, Ben helped care for her and appreciated the great deal of support they received from the Grand Oaks staff. “If it wasn’t for the compassionate care from the staff, I don’t know what we would have done, because there is no way I could have taken care of her myself,” he says.
Ben and his wife were married for 53 years before her passing in 2008. While he misses her tremendously, Ben takes full advantage of the support system he has found in his fellow residents at Grand Oaks. “It’s a tremendous benefit – there are over 150 residents here,” he says. “I know a lot of them and they’ve given me a lot of support, and I feel better.”
He also attended a Widowed Persons Outreach Group with the Sibley Senior Association (a complementary membership for all Grand Oaks residents) which helped him cope with sadness and depression, and where he found solace and met new friends.
Aside from practicing his trumpet and performing for other residents, Ben has also occupied his time traveling and learning other languages. He was able to recently visit his son in Germany and has been studying the language along with Russian. “I have Russian tapes that I listen to and I’m trying to learn German and keep up with my son, but I’ll never catch up with him,” says Ben.
Fortunately, Ben is also able to frequently see his daughter, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. and had initially helped him find Grand Oaks. The help of his adult child is a familiar situation to Ben, who had assisted his own father when he was challenged by aging issues.
“I loved my father a lot and I could see he was having trouble living in his house,” says Ben. As a result, he went exploring and found his father a house in Oakton, Va. where he could be cared for by a staff. “He moved into the very first Sunrise community,” he says. Since Sunrise Senior Living is the management company for Grand Oaks, Ben refers to himself as a “second generation resident of Sunrise.”
Despite coming to grips with the changes that had occurred in his life, Ben had thought he could possibly move into an apartment and live independently following his wife’s passing. It was during the recent trip to Europe, however, that he realized he needed the assistance at Grand Oaks in order to maintain an enjoyable lifestyle.
“There is always going to be change in your life, and you can’t avoid it. I always assumed that everything was going to be the same,” says Ben. “I had a good job and I never thought about retirement. I married a beautiful lady and I had a wonderful marriage and I just assumed it would go on forever and we would always live in this nice house forever. We would have these two nice kids forever. And then the kids grow up, and you grow old, you get disabilities and your health changes. You get to a point where you can’t live the way you are living and you have to change the way you are living.”
No matter what may come in life, however, there is no question for Ben that Grand Oaks will remain a constant in his life.
“My stay here has been very good, I’ve been happy and I find the staff to be very helpful and compassionate,” he says.