Celebrating the later years


The question I’m probably asked most, and yet am least prepared to answer, is, “Why did you get started working with seniors?” 

When it comes to the work I’m doing in Chicago, the answer is actually easy. Last Christmas, it felt very strange not having someone to plan a holiday party for, so I decided to propose a drop-in program to the Hyde Park Village similar to the one where I worked during high school. I suspect the broader answer has a similar tinge of selfishness (it’s really wonderful, especially in a city, to have a million grandmothers). But I also know that it goes a layer deeper.

There’s a deeper reason why I feel it’s so important to work with seniors in whatever small ways I can. Time spent at Montgomery Place has reminded me of it. When I was still living at home, I made frequent trips to visit “Neema and Papa,” my close-to-home grandparents. I often gave quick lessons in computer literacy to my grandfather, who remains one of the most stubborn people I know. He is so stubborn, in fact, that he was using a computer running Windows 2000 in 2010. I tried to explain to him that computers become obsolete in about four or five years, and that he could browse airline tickets and check his e-mail even faster on a newer machine. Papa’s constant refrain, a joke told so often it can’t really be a joke, is, “Oh yeah? What, are you gonna throw us away in four years, too?” 

I’m not a fan of saying that the “technological age” has brought anything really new. I’m of the opinion that it’s all been seen before, in some form or another. But I think my grandfather’s joke relies on an important distinction, and it’s a distinction we always need to keep making. People, unlike machines and food, do not have a shelf life. 

At Montgomery Place, I’ve seen this reality lived with an incredible consciousness. I have to admit that I went in thinking I was going to be writing about a “nursing home,” and that nursing homes were bad things. But here, I’ve seen that staff and administrators alike enforce the realization that each and every resident is an incredible person who’s lived an incredible life. It’s talked about behind the scenes, at employee lunches and in the elevators — it’s part of the culture at Montgomery Place. Of course, this attitude doesn’t just belong there. It should be in place everywhere.

There are all sorts of utilitarian reasons for adopting this attitude. It’s possible to go on and on about the lessons one can learn from seniors. Society as a whole can benefit deeply from listening to the people who created the situation in which we are now placed. But I’m not really big on utility as a measure of value, and as much as I relish the lessons I’ve learned working with seniors, they have very little to do with why I’m drawn to working with them. 

Though no one would actually “throw out” a person for having somehow become obsolete, the shelf-life idea is part of a broader and very much alive societal myth, the myth of the unhappy senior. Many people expect depression to be a normal part of aging (it isn’t), and think that there’s something horrible about getting older. Happiness, though, doesn’t come from something found exclusively before or after we retire, or before or after the aging process really starts. It comes from something else, from a part of who we are that remains essential to us the whole way along the journey of getting older. Dignity doesn’t come from having a sharp memory, or from how much help we need to take care of ourselves — it, too, comes from that something else.

It’s the desire to celebrate that part of life that draws me to working with seniors. Like the culture at Montgomery Place, I want to honor and recognize the people I serve — not just for their experience in life but for the life they will continue to live. I want to be a part of recognizing their dignity, at the very least because it makes my life a little more hopeful.