How Compassion for the Elderly Changed My Life


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I love their humor, their perspectives and the simplicity of their lives.

What do you do when your friend comes to you crying? In pain and helpless?

My first instinct is to hug them because I don’t know what else to do. Sometimes I try to give them advice, but then I find myself sounding stupid, because I really have no clue how they’re feeling, and they probably didn’t even want my advice in the first place.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

That’s the key, that’s the ointment, the best thing that you can do.

Now for some of us, that comes naturally, but I’m not one of those lucky ducks. I’ve had to learn on my own, and it actually all started by learning how to love old people.

I don’t know how it happened, but I’m so compelled by the elderly–not in a creepy way, but in an honoring and sweet kind of way. I love their humor, their perspectives and the simplicity of their lives. I just think everything they do is so cute, haha. But really—I think it’s their invitation to slow down.  

My magnetic pull towards elderly people started when I was 14, watering flowers at a Nursing Home and becoming great friends with some of the loveliest people. But I know that many of us only really interact with the elderly when we’re in line at Kroger or when our dad drags us to Grandma’s house. And with good reason. Old People kind of have a bad rep: Boring.

I can tell you one thing for sure: they are not boring.

I’ve been spending time with the elderly for about 7 years now, from watering flowers to full on caregiving. Yup, wiping butts and giving showers, the whole shebang. And I can tell you one thing for sure: they are not boring.

The lady that I work with now has Alzheimer’s pretty bad, but 2 years ago she taught me how to cook and knit. She told me stories of immigrating from Germany when she was my age . . . By Herself . . . and now she can’t even tie her shoes or remember if she’s eaten or not.

Being a caregiver is really a special gift. I’ve been able to transition with this sweet, sweet lady into the most confusing and scariest season of her life. Every day she is losing her memory and losing her ability to contribute to this earth.

I believe that my heart has to break with hers to be able to truly empathize and walk with her into Dementia and Alzheimer’s. And that may sound painful and hard, but it’s also very grounding. As my Sweet Old Lady reverts back to her childish self, I get to enter into playful imagination and radical realities.

I have this idea that anyone who wants to be an actor should practice their improv with people with Alzheimer’s because truly, when I’m at work, I enter a fantasy land where nothing makes sense. But it does to her—and as long as I’m going along with her imagination, everything is okay.

Sometimes it’s funny and totally nonsensical, but there are also times when because of the state of her mind, she thinks she’s abandoned and has no clue where she is. Alzheimer’s creates these false realities in her mind, making her sob for hours because she thinks that her kids abandoned her. I’ve had to learn how to pull her out of those dark places with love.

And I’ll tell you, being a little kid while simultaneously being an emotional guide and practically a mother to this 87-year-old lovely woman is extremely exhausting but insanely rewarding. I’ve learned how to step into the heart of another and walk with them to freedom.  

That sounds so dramatic, but that’s empathy—one of the greatest gifts you could ever give anyone.

As her mind starts to fade, my Sweet Old Lady has had to be more and more vulnerable with me, trusting me to be her hands, feet and mind. That is beautiful. That makes me want to be more vulnerable in my own life.

I started making a list of some of the sweetest things she’s ever said to me. Here are just a few:

“You are the Best Friend I ever had.”

“You look just like Angelina Jolie.”

“I absolutely hate getting mad at you because you are my best friend and I want to see you grow up and do everything you want. I love you.” 

Yes—she is my biggest hype woman. She taught me what empathy really is and how to really love someone. All without ever knowing my name. I know her entire daily schedule, from the times she sleeps to when she poops, and she has never known my name. And yet, she really is my best friend.

Love looks a lot different when you are humble.

Spending time with the elderly strips love down to the bones through vulnerability and play, leaving bare a relationship so pure and beautiful.

You don’t have to spend time with the elderly to learn empathy and have a beautifully rewarding relationship, but you can apply a lot of what I’ve learned to your own life. Take delight in slowing down, and let patience wash over you in every relationship you create.

I promise you, it’s worth it.

What do you respect about the elderly people in your life?

Image via Oliver Pacas


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