When people ask me what I do (after explaining I’m a stay at home mom), I tell them about my two degrees in Social Work and my time working at a nursing home. I often get a look of disappointment or confusion. Many people cannot imagine someone choosing to go into this field. It seems many people are turned off by the downside of aging- wrinkles, gray hair, a decline in health and even death. I’m sure they are thinking, “of all the things you could do, why that”? It is difficult to explain my fascination with and affection for older adults.
I guess it goes back to childhood. I learned to admire older adults as I visited my grandparents in West Pam Beach, Florida. I only had one set of grandparents (the others were deceased) and making the 12 hour trip in the car or flight (where I often got sick) to see Nene and Papa made it a special event. My grandparents’ home was a mini haven. It was a ranch style house that Papa built 35 years prior. It was the house that my mother grew up in. It was located on a canal which ran beside the I-95 interstate. The yard was perfectly maintained and the grass was incredibly lush. When I visited, I ate at nice restaurants, went to the beach and Nene always had Pepperidge Farm cookies waiting in her kitchen drawer! I slept in my mother’s old room and enjoyed the large house all to myself (without my little brothers).
Growing up in Elizabethtown NC, I had a number of interactions with older adults. Once as a little girl, I was invited to eat lunch with an older couple from church. I remember sitting at their enormous table that took up the entire room. I was their only guest that day and I felt like a queen.
As a middle school student, I adopted an older couple from my church as my local grandparents- Mr. and Mrs. Butler. They always sat in the same small room in their house. The room smelled musty and the curtains stayed closed making it much too dark. Mr. Butler smoked a pipe and is smelled so good! Mrs. Butler gave me sweet iced tea (something we rarely had at home). She also had a glass jar of candy in her kitchen that was never touched. I remember wanting some, but never eating any for fear the candy was as old as me! The Butlers took an interest in me and loved my family.
As a teenager, I spent two weeks with an elderly couple that chose to spend their retirement years in Wales, UK. The husband, Mr. McFarland, a retired pastor felt called to volunteer his time preaching in churches throughout Wales. He had a stroke some time prior and suffered permanent damage to one side of his body. He moved slowly and used a special mechanism on his steering wheel in order to drive. He was an inspiration and taught me the importance of remaining active and pursuing your dreams no no matter the situation. His wife was amazing as well, as she supported her husband (she probably could have persuaded him to remain in the US).
As a young college student, I realized that life as a senior isn’t just fun times with grandchildren and relaxing on a much anticipated vacation. It can be a time of significant loss- loss of elderly siblings and friends; even your own independence. I was able to empathize with older adults and connect with them deeply. In graduate school I was humbled as I learned about more serious issues like abuse and neglect.
I knew that working with older adults was a calling I had to answer. Even if it meant going to work in a facility that smelled bad and dealing with tough issues like having to explain to a family their loved one was dying and Hospice care was recommended. I knew older adults needed people like me. They needed people who were comfortable being around them.
Older adults need to be supported. I think of a friend today- an older acquaintance; a woman who was once an employer, a fellow church member and someone I admire. This week her husband lies dying in a Georgia Hospice facility. She and her husband are only two of millions around the world today, experiencing the same event: some piece of this period of life commonly referred to “old age”.
Experiences in aging are similar, yet exceedingly diverse and extremely personal. Individuals who are aging themselves, or who are caring for an older adult often need assistance from others to be successful (content, happy, joyful, mentally well).
We aren’t born knowing how to be parents and we aren’t born knowing how to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s or deal with a parent who is dying of cancer. We need support from professionals, but also from ordinary people going through the same event.
This is why I am doing this blog- to remain abreast of current aging topics and to offer support and education to others. Contact me with your thoughts.