If someone had told me ten years ago that I would one day be volunteering at a nursing home, I wouldn't have believed them. In fact, my 26-year-old self would have responded with, “Pffft, yeah right. Sitting around with a bunch of old people all day? I'd rather watch paint dry.”
Thankfully my mind has opened up since then. Once a week for about three hours, I do sit around with a bunch of old people, and you know what? I love it! I have made some unforgettable friends at the nursing home, enjoyed a ton of laughter, and gained more wisdom than I ever could have imagined.
I want to honor my elderly friends by sharing six life lessons I've learned while in their company.
1 – Love is the Best Gift of all
I was walking down the hallway one afternoon when I heard a familiar voice calling to me from one of the rooms. I turned back and wrapped my head around the doorway to see Elsie looking up at me from her wheelchair. “Hi! Where have you been? I missed you!” she said with open arms.
On the outside, Elsie looks like any other 96-year-old—her hair is as white and fluffy as cotton, her skin as delicate as tissue paper—but on the inside, Elsie is beaming with youthful energy. She's the only resident who does a victory cheer after winning a game of dominoes.
We talked about raspberries and the approach of spring for a while until I noticed a letter sitting on her bed. “Hey, what's this?” I asked. Elsie's eyes widened as she grabbed the letter and slid her bony thumb along the seal.
“Oh, this is exciting,” Elsie said. “I wonder who it could be from.”
She took out the large piece of paper, slowly unfolding it to reveal crayon-colored hearts, glued-on sparkles, and the words: I Love You Grandma.
Elsie's face lit up with joy. She kissed and smelled and stared at the drawing for close to a minute before telling me about the artist. “This is from my great-grandson, Colin,” she said. “You know, I'm so very lucky.”
I knew right away how Elsie had maintained her vitality.
Growing old doesn't have to be sad and lonely. Love is all it takes to lift someone's spirit, to give them a reason to keep on smiling.
2 – Freedom from Ego is Freedom from Suffering
Mildred, a former school teacher still very attached to that role, is notorious for criticizing anyone in her path. “Pull up your pants, young man!” she's scolded me, clearly unaware that men no longer dress like Robert Mitchum. She will then wheel herself over the next hooligan. “Excuse me. Excuuuuse me. Why are you blocking this doorway? I taught for over forty years and I never stood for this kind of behavior.” It doesn't matter if the poor old man in the doorway is as deaf as a brick, Mildred simply must assert her position.
Mildred can't stand losing at Senior's Jeopardy. In her mind, being wrong is the end of the world, and she will stew about it long after the game is over, mumbling and cursing under her breath. “That bastard doesn't even have a degree.” It seems impossible for Mildred to accept that her intelligence—the trait she has always identified with, always been known for—has faded with age.
Many other residents remain imprisoned by their egos. Former athletes and beauty queens who derive a sense of self from their physical form become severely depressed when the reality of a withering body sets in. Their new identity, old age, is strengthened by the sad stories of who they once were and never will be again.
The most peaceful people at the nursing home are free of ego. They have nothing to prove, no image to maintain, and live only in the present moment. Physical pain still exists for them, but the psychological pain associated with loss of identity does not. These rare individuals are so calm and surrendered, so detached from human drama, that they bring out the best in everyone. Even Mildred softens up in their presence.
I have learned that true suffering comes from investing one's sense of self in the impermanent.
3 – Positive Energy is Real
Just before Christmas last year, I brought some shortbread cookies and a Christmas Classics CD to the nursing home. To be honest, I felt really drab that evening, certainly not in the right frame of mind to spread Christmas cheer to anyone, let alone a group of elderly people. But I put on my silly green Santa hat anyway, and tried my best to muster up some enthusiasm.
The moment I walked into the activity room, Agatha looked at me as if she had just won The Showcase Showdown, eyes wide, arms flailing about. She gave me an enormous hug and told me how wonderful it was to see me. My mood lightened immediately. I suddenly felt energized, as though a floodlight had turned on inside my brain.
I spent the next hour passing out shortbreads and singing along to Nat King Cole with my friends. We all had so much fun.
But I thought the party might be over when George, the resident grump, came shuffling in. He sat down in his usual chair and frowned at anyone who looked his way. Feeling so great, so impervious to negativity, I decided to approach him for the first time. “Hey George, do you want a cookie?” I asked. The lines on George's face slowly began to smooth out as he flashed me the brightest smile in the room.
“Thank you very much, young man,” he said while shaking my hand.
I couldn't believe it! It was like the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. After chatting(and even laughing) with him for a while, I discovered that George is actually friendly guy; he just needs to be shown some genuine kindness for that side of him to shine.
My beliefs about positive energy were confirmed that night—it's attractive, it's contagious, and it's powerful enough to crack the hardest shell.
4 – We are not these Bodies
Lying motionless in bed, sunbeams stretched across her pale skin, Frieda stared off into space with vacant eyes and an open mouth. Her face remained blank as I crept into her room.
If I didn't know Frieda well enough, I would have assumed that she had passed away before my visit that afternoon. But I had seen her in that frozen state of consciousness enough times not to panic.
Without saying a word, I pulled up a chair, picked up her cold little hand and gave it a kiss.
Life returned instantly.
I watched in awe as her skin began to glow pink, as her narrow veins filled with blood, as her eyes regained their sparkle. Frieda gripped my hand and smiled. We spent the whole afternoon chatting about nothing in particular.
Moments like this have shown me that we are not these bodies, that our physical forms—constantly fading and ultimately impermanent—are merely vessels which contain who we truly are, the indwelling spirit or life essence.
5 – Let Go of the Past
Many elderly people have trouble escaping the darkness in their mind. They lie in bed for hours on end, overwhelmed by the black pull of depression. By hearing them describe their thoughts and feelings, I've discovered one recurring shadow among them all: the past.
Whenever Frieda is severely depressed, which is about half the time I visit, her story is always the same: “There are so many things that I didn't do with my life. I made so many mistakes so long ago. I wish I could go back to that time and do the right thing so I could be happy now.” She will point to the black and white photos on her nightstand, reliving memories that still haunt her to this day.
I asked Frieda once, “Do you usually get depressed when you remember the past?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I start to feel very low when I visit old memories, especially the sad ones.”
Frieda went on to explain that she feels her best when she leaves the past alone and just accepts whatever happened.
6 – I Have a Lot to be Thankful for
Without exerting much effort, I can hike through a beautiful forest, taking in all of the sights, sounds, and scents of the natural world; I can store and retrieve information in my brain; I can articulate my thoughts so that anyone can understand me. I've had these gifts for so long that I often forget to appreciate them.
But spending time with people who can't remember what happened an hour ago, who can't walk or bathe themselves, who can't see or hear or speak clearly, reminds me of how truly fortunate I am. I become aware of all the precious, fleeting gifts that are so easily taken for granted in my youth.
Sometimes on my way out the door, Agatha will say something like, “Enjoy what you have.” I know exactly what she means.
From a thirty-something's point of view, growing old doesn't look like much fun. While I'm sure that some cultures make the elderly feel important and useful, here in the west we prefer to tuck them away in quiet little homes while society carries on.
It's quite sad, but a few of my friends have told me how worthless they feel, how they've lost their sense of purpose. I remind them that they have taught me so much about life, and that simply being in their company has helped me grow into a kinder, more loving human being. If that isn't purpose, I don't know what is.