My whole life when people asked me what my dad does for work, my muttered answer was always quite uncertain. Still to this day, I don’t quite understand the ins and outs of my dad’s career, but have been grateful that it has introduced me to world of assisted living facilities in the Pacific NorthWest. I found myself for many summers and my first year after college, working inside them. Many might cringe at the idea, but honestly, I enjoyed it. Maybe it was because of the caring staff and the quality of the buildings, but the atmosphere didn’t feel lonely or depressing. During the year after college, I was promoted from the cleaning and serving crew to the marketing team where I interacted with adult children struggling emotionally about “putting” their aging parents in a home. After our tour and my genuine enthusiasm about the advantages our community offered, they became excited about the independence and socialization their parent(s) would experience with us. I watched the social butterflies thrive during Christmas concerts, dinners and various outings and activities, but I also witnessed others who preferred to remain roombound. Some struggled with dementia, others with chronic pain, and it was almost impossible to persuade them to leave their 400-foot apartment-style rooms.
It wasn’t until earning my Masters in Social Welfare that I learned about the tragic statistics haunting our geriatric population. According to Mental Health America, senior citizens make up 20% of the yearly suicide rate in America. Depression is a serious issue for the elderly, and many face chronic illnesses that contribute to this despondency.
When doctors put me on modified bedrest during my pregnancy, I was shocked at the isolation I felt being physically limited. Although I never struggled with depression, I felt dispirited for moments. I wanted to be outside, I wanted to visit with friends, but I knew I needed to slow down. It was extremely difficult for me to handle the bedrest mentally. And I WASN’T EVEN ALONE. I had my husband, my daughter and my mom helping out for the two and a half months I needed to take it easy. I was able to walk around casually and wasn’t limited to my bed. Even though I felt excited about welcoming our new son, I remember finding each subsequent day harder and harder. This experience gave me great empathy for the elderly or the ill. Some are widowed, some are bedbound, some are without hope.
That is why I felt grateful for this week’s challenge to connect with the elderly. I contacted a woman at our church to see if she had any recommendations about who to visit. She mentioned two ladies, Barbara and Peggy, both widowed and in their mid-late 80s. So while Cooper was thrilled about our random cookie baking activity, I focused on who we were making the cookies for. I told her the cookies were going to make Barbara and Peggy happy because they didn’t have family nearby.
She quickly responded, “Then we will give them cookies and give them family to make them happy.”
I explained that the ladies would enjoy the cookies, but our main focus was to make them happy by visiting them. So on Tuesday, Cooper, Clark and I drove to Barbara’s home. When we pulled up, she was watering her front yard with a hose in one hand and her cane in the other. She was witty and happy to see us. I pretty much invited myself in, but she was excited to have company. Her house was dark and full of cluttered history. I am always fascinated by the history stacked on the shelves. The first thing Cooper noticed was a shelf full of old children’s books. Clark, true to form, noticed everything breakable within a 12-month-old’s crawling reach. We shared cookies and some water and listened to her stories about growing up in a remote town in Idaho. By the end, Cooper was on her lap reading a story. As we left, we promised each other another visit, next time at our house (which is a little more baby proof) and to continue our friendship at church. She waved good-bye and told us our visit had made her day.
On Wednesday we visited Peggy. Her house was bright and well organized by her adult daughter who was caring for her after a stroke. Something magical happens when the youngest and the oldest of the population interact. When watching almost-three-year- old Cooper interact with 87-year-old Peggy, I knew their friendship was meant to be. They both glowed while talking about simple things, laughing at shy smiles, and sharing cookies. Peggy managed to walk around her house with a walker and showed us her collection of Macy’s Department Store teddy bears and her bird that rings a bell on command. Cooper, of course, did not want to leave her house. I witnessed something beautiful as I watched two people, 85 years apart, share simple joys and connect so easily.
Barbara’s and Peggy’s stories about their children and grandchildren made me realize that when you are in your 80s, family is the only thing that matters. It made me think of memories of my own grandparents. Unfortunately, they all passed away at what I now consider tragically young ages (in their 60s and early 70s). Now that I have children, it's fun to witness their growing relationships with their grandparents. How lucky they are to have five grandparents who love them to pieces.
Merms (my mom)
Papa (my Dad)
Nani (Cory’s Mom)
Grandpa Clark (Cory’s Dad)
Grandma Tea Party (Cory’s step-mom).
While I do not consider them elderly, one day soon they will be, one day I will be, and at that time I hope to be visited and loved by family, friends and complete strangers delivering cookies.