What a privilege it is to work with older adults. I don’t think that people outside of our field really understand that. They ask us “How could you do this work?” and they wonder, “Isn’t it terribly sad?” The truth is, I think, that we get more than we give as our elders touch our lives in so many ways. And, yes, it is sometimes sad when we lose someone who means a lot to us but we also have the honor of carrying their memory with us forever.
Over the years many of our elders have left their permanent imprint on my heart and in my memory. One of them, who died last week, is my friend Joanie. I met Joanie on my very first day at the Jewish Home Family. I was walking through the building and Joanie was sitting out in the hall, keeping an eye on the action and talking with her friends. She greeted me warmly and wanted to know all about me – and she wasn’t shy in telling me about herself either! As time went on, Joanie and I had many conversations. She told me about the work that she used to do and about the amazing trips she’d taken all over the world. I admired the colorful silk scarves that Joanie frequently wore and she would tell me where each scarf had come from and what it meant to her.
Joanie was one of those people who “never met a stranger” and she would talk to everyone. She made friends with other elders and she adopted their families, helping both to feel more comfortable as they made their transition to living in a long term care setting. She was an ambassador for us, always reaching out with warmth and good humor.
Over the course of the last five years, I watched as Joanie’s complicated health became more complicated. Her ever present smile wasn’t always there but she worked hard to continue to always rise to the occasion. In 2015, I had asked Joanie to be a part of our first mission to Israel. She thought about it and turned me down. But in 2018, when we announced our second mission, I didn’t have to ask. Joanie wheeled herself into my office and told me that she was ready to go.
No one worked harder to prepare for this adventure than Joanie did. Her walking was not strong but she pushed herself to go to therapy to work on walking, transferring and climbing stairs, knowing that all of that was important to be able to take this trip. When the day arrived and we got on that bus to the airport, Joanie was beaming. And I’m pretty sure that she was beaming every minute from the moment we left until we returned home.
Travel like this is not easy for someone with medical issues. It was hard for her to get in and out of the bus, difficult to manage (even with an amazing buddy from our staff) hotel rooms, challenging to be bumped around in a wheelchair in a country that is less than accessible. But she never faltered. Not once. Her diabetes required ongoing checks and at every meal, when she saw our nurse headed her way, she stuck out her hand with a smile, often cracking a joke.
Our first day, Joanie put her hand on the Western Wall and tears filled her eyes. She loved everything we did, everything she saw but there were two moments that are my (and I think her) favorite memories. When we got to the Dead Sea, we worried about how we would get her into the water. It was hard for her to sit down, as most people do, and let their legs float up. Our amazing team figured out a solution that enabled Joanie to get into the water and into a position where she could float. She laid back in the water and spread her arms wide and smiled as widely as anyone could. She was free, totally free, and she loved it. She told me many times that it was “better than Coney Island!” and for Joanie, that was the ultimate compliment.
The second moment was our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We had music playing and there were a lot of us up and dancing. One of our other elders, who had become close friends with Joanie, danced over to her and we helped her get Joanie up. The two of them held hands, swaying to the music and smiling from ear to ear.
Joanie’s friend lives on a different campus so we needed to tell her that Joanie was gone. She was bereft and I said to her, “You were such a good friend to Joanie.” She said, “Joanie was such a good friend to me.” Joanie was a good friend to me as well. What a gift she was in my life, in all our lives. That’s why we do the work we do, that’s why it matters.