Even though it was published five years ago, I still remember this news article in my local paper in which an 89-year-old man describes his life at a retirement home.
It begins with this section on small talk:
Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.
The common topics of conversation are the weather and the food, and since they both change every day, most of us never lack for conversation. For those contemplating a move to a lodge such as ours, it is wise to polish up their encrustations to make them as smooth and inoffensive as possible.
Thus we engage in the never-ending table talk with the minimum of disagreement.
Now I understand that the piece is intended to be a bit humorous in a certain way, but I haven’t been able to forget the grim picture painted in those short paragraphs.
By contrast, consider the aspirational vision that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us in his piece, “To Grow in Wisdom”:
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?'”
This evening I was speaking with one of my dear friends who is a doctor.
She told me, “I know you’re looking for uplifting stories for your blog, but lately I have been seeing a lot of elderly patients who have had bad falls. Since many of them live alone and are not able to get back up by themselves, sometimes they are not found until the next day or two. When that is the case, the person may be found sitting in their own feces or urine, profoundly helpless, until a support worker or relative comes to visit.”
Of course the best situation is when a vulnerable person can live in a family home so that their presence and wellbeing is continually and naturally monitored by their loved ones. The next best thing for the elderly would be to live in retirement homes where many services are provided and there are attendant nurses. This, however, is quite expensive and not within everyone’s reach.
On hearing about this from my friend, I remembered a recent conversation I had with a senior buddy of mine with whom I have been having weekly phone calls throughout the pandemic.
He and I have never met, but we have sure gotten to know one another through our Wednesday visits.
This gentleman with whom I speak just turned 90-years-old. His wife passed away last year and so he lives alone. Some of his adult children who live in town visit him and each week he brings his 88-year-old sister some shawarma.