For the past two and a half years, I have worked in an assisted living doing activities. My residents range in age, from late sixties to over a hundred, and in physical and mental maladies, from Alzheimer’s to severe arthritis. Next week I am about to shift from the aged population to children when I start my student teaching. I don’t regret a moment I spent working there because this job led me to my real purpose in life: to teach. But before I could teach, I had to learn a little more about life from people who are at the end of theirs. And boy, did I learn a lot. Here are some of the best lessons I learned from my residents.
1. Always carry a tissue in case of emergency: I have not encountered one old person who doesn’t carry a spare tissue in their pocket for some unknown, future purpose. I always thought this was a hallmark of old age craziness but now I know that this habit is just about being prepared. Think ahead and always be prepared for whatever comes your way, whether it’s a runny nose or one of life’s disappointments. “In case of emergency” isn’t about having a fatalist attitude. It’s about being prepared for whatever may come your way.
2. Really, truly love the one you’re with: More recently we’ve had a lot of couples move into the facility. It’s interesting, at an age when I am just embarking on a long journey with someone I love to see two people who have been through decades and many different obstacles with one another. Many times one of them has a problem, either physical or mental such as being in a wheelchair or sick with dementia. Could you imagine the man you are dating or thinking about marrying being old and unable to recognize you? Could you love him then? It seems like a long way off but I have talked with residents who have been through fires and losing their children in a car accident, robberies and mental breakdowns. They always talk about the strength of their partner helping them get through it. And now that one of them is sick, they are here for their partner until the devastating, and often heartbreaking, end. When you are thinking about forever, think about the days, the months, the years past the wedding day and see if you can see yourself caring for that person by yourself in sickness or in health.
3. Don’t sit in one place too long or else you’ll get stiff: I can’t tell you how often I help an old lady or an old man get in or out of a chair because they are getting stiff. This lesson is much more figurative: do something for too long and you’ll get bored. Going through the motions day by day can mean that you’re not growing, you’re not changing. Make small changes every once in awhile and you’ll avoid getting “stiff.”
4. Care for your family and your friends: The network you have around you only gets more important the older you get. Don’t forget to stay connected to those around you. Life gets pretty hectic right about now, with college and your first job and marriage and babies but eventually it will begin to slow down and those that you care for now will most likely be the ones still around you. Stay connected through calls and e-mails and remembering birthdays. Check in and be there to talk to. When you are old, you will want those people by your side to remember all the good times you experienced together.
5. Stay active: Good health carries over into old age. There is an old woman at the residence who taught yoga for years. Her dementia has her asking me where the bathroom is every day around 3:30pm but she can still kick her leg over her head when prompted; she’s 85 years old. If that isn’t a reason to eat right and go for run, I don’t know what else to tell you.
6. Patience: This is an obvious lesson that I’ve learned because, when you deal with people every day, you have to have patience. Everyone has their own problems they are dealing with and you might just be an innocent bystander to their anger or their clumsiness or their slowness. With the elderly, their problems are obvious; with the rest of the population, not so much. So before you are annoyed and angry at someone, remember that you might not see the whole story there so have patience.
7. Everything works out alright in the end: We are so worried about doing everything right, right now. Having the perfect job, meeting the perfect man in the perfect way, getting the car, the house, the kids or the big title. And if it’s not going the way you planned, you get frustrated and depressed. But what I’ve learned from talking to the elderly about their different life stories is that it all works out the way it’s supposed to. There are a lot of different ways to get through life and the way you do it is just right for you. Don’t spend too much time comparing yourself to others because, in the end, whatever happens will be just right for you.
8. Never stop being yourself because YOU is all you have: When it comes down to it, you might have the car and the man and the job but when you are close to 100, you might not have a whole lot to “show off.” But if you stay true to yourself, that’s all you need. While so much goes away with Alzheimer’s and other age diseases, usually the quirks of your personality remain. I’ve heard so many loved ones laugh because, even though he can’t remember where he is from moment to moment, he still uses that phrase or wears his shirt this way, etc. You won’t be able to keep all the material gains you make throughout a lifetime but you will always have you and your personality well into old age.