Recently, I sat down with my friend Anna to listen to some of her stories.
It might surprise you that this young woman told me, “The happiest time of my life was working 16-hour days in a retirement home during COVID.”
“My body ached and my heart rejoiced,” Anna testified.
She spoke with such empathy about the elderly residents.
“Imagine! A person who has lived a hundred years might be reduced to ‘June at Table 20.’ The residents might have lived a long, fruitful life only to be reduced to their dietary preferences in their final months and years.”
Because Anna regards these seniors’ long lives with reverence, she does not like to see nor participate in taking such a reductive view of the human person.
Instead, she relishes doing her utmost to serve the residents and considers every conversation as an opportunity for a meaningful interaction.
“My favourite residents are the ones who would get agitated easily,” Anna told me. “And it became a challenge: ‘How can I make them happy?'”
Instead of seeing elderly residents as grumpy, stuck in their ways, or ungrateful, Anna has a lot of compassion when serving residents their food because she realizes that food preferences may be their only remaining sphere of control or expression.
Anna explained, “This [their food and how it is served] is often the last thing they can choose. If your whole life was being reduced as you aged, wouldn’t you surely want someone to try, to go the extra mile for you?”
Whenever Anna was serving residents at the retirement home, she tried to decipher how their behaviour was a reflection of their early life. Sometimes it was elusive and other times she cracked the mysteries. The breakthrough moments when people would soften gave her a sense of fulfilment and made her sensitive to the fact that, “Too easily we can forget the grief and hurt in every life.”
The other day I was listening to a Kate Bowler podcast episode on aging in which Mary Pipher says, “One of the reasons I think younger people have a hard time empathizing with the experience of older people is they’ve never been old.”
But for Anna, even though she is very young, she has found points on which to empathize – one of which is due to her having diabetes.
“Because I have diabetes, I can empathize with having dietary restrictions and am inclined to take them extremely seriously, particularly because we can relate on that,” she told me.
The purpose of her work, Anna told me, is bringing a slice of home and a sense of familiarity into the residents’ lives.
My favourite story of all that Anna shared with me during this conversation was about how she found every resident in the retirement home to be a puzzle.
In particular, there was this one woman named Mary who had dementia and who would always ask for bread to dip into her coffee. The other retirement home servers would gossip about her and found her so strange.
One day, for Anna, it clicked and she told her coworkers, “Oh!!!!! Mary is Italian. She wants biscotti, not white bread!”
At the next opportunity, Anna brought Mary a piece of biscotti. Mary’s eyes lit up – not only with recognition of what she received but also because of the recognition of who she was.