Two years ago, I embarked on a journey that brought to my life a myriad of blessings which, at the time, I did not even realize I was seeking. I thought I was simply taking on a second job, working at a senior citizens independent living complex, in an effort to help put our last two children through college. I was also working full-time at a local university along with taking care of my elderly mother, who had dementia and other aging-related issues. I was accustomed to dealing with seniors and thought I had something I could offer.
During my training, I tried to find ways to remember the names of each of the more than 100 residents, and took notes to help me identify them.
“Mrs. X: gray hair and glasses.”
“Mrs. Y: gray hair, glasses, walker”
“Mrs. Z: gray hair, glasses, no walker”
It soon became obvious that physical descriptions of the residents would get me nowhere. In a sea full of gray hair and glasses, it was difficult to distinguish one from another. There were a few obvious anomalies but those were the exceptions. I would have to find another method of distinction. But what could that be?
I decided to put my efforts into observing and engaging each person in conversation, and hoped that things would be said that could help me identify them. Soon, I realized my notes were starting to take on a life of their own with descriptions that immediately conjured mental images of each person as I read through them. The adjectives practically flew off the page, and none of them referenced physical descriptions.
“Mr. A: quiet and articulate, loves nature and wildlife photography!”
“Mrs. B- artistic, well-travelled, well-read, smart and interesting.”
“Mr. C: Sports fanatic, great sense of humor.”
“Mrs. D: Classic yet trendy, kindhearted, intelligent and classy.”
“Ms. E: Brilliant and funny with a dry wit, heart of gold.”
“Mrs. F: Quiet, shy, sweet, likes to eat with Mrs. B and Mrs. D.”
Before long, I realized it was becoming far less difficult for me to remember who was who. I have learned to no longer look at a senior citizen and see just gray hair and glasses. I see vitality, creativity, personality and, most valuable of all, I see history, and the potential to teach all of us who will listen. How fortunate I am to be in a position to listen and learn from them. I don’t take notes anymore when a new resident moves in. No need to; my eyes are open wider now, as I have learned to see beyond the physical attributes of people and can focus on the qualities that have made them who they are.
During this process, I lost my own mother, but what helped me through losing her was the comfort of being around people who showed me that the process of aging and dying is the natural consequence of having lived a long and valuable life. Our physical lives will end at some point, but we live on in what we pass down to our families and others who take the time to embrace our lessons and insights.
At night, we gather at the front desk after dinner discussing all kinds of topics from local sports to family issues to current events. I only hope they know how I treasure these conversations, these precious glimpses they allow me into their hearts and minds, which have left me transformed forever.
In the early mornings, during that time of day before the world is yet awake and when anything seems possible, I can almost sense the presence of those who have moved on from us, sitting in their favorite places, or walking through the halls, pausing, as if to say hello. It’s just my imagination, of course. Or is it possible there is another dimension of consciousness, a portal where one world momentarily collides with another? I like to think it’s the latter, and I open my mind and eyes to possibilities beyond that which we can only see, and I smile at the memories they invoke.
I thought by taking this job I had something I could offer the residents. But what they have given me is so much greater than I could possibly have given them. Unexpected blessings are always the sweetest.