Most of us who work with older adults are asked the questions, “How can you do what you do? How can you work with people who are at the end of life? Isn’t your job all about people dying?” Those questions are almost always followed by the comment “I could never do that.” And while we all certainly have different skills and preferences, the notion that working with older adults is just about sadness and depression is not an accurate one.
Granted, reaching advanced age often brings with it disease and/or disability. Granted, those individuals who live within a community setting — whether assisted living or nursing home — primarily live there because they have physical or other needs. Yet counting these folks out, thinking that they have nothing left to experience or contribute is just not true.
I often say that we get a gift from our residents every day. Sometimes it is a story they share, sometimes it’s a kiss on the cheek and sometimes it is watching the joy that they experience as they embrace life, regardless of age or debility.
This past week I watched a chorus of 30 or more nursing home residents present songs from The Wizard of Oz. They followed their scripts, presented dialogue, sang solos and choruses and even performed a violin solo. Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the witches and more were arrayed in costumes and singing with great energy. Achievements like this bring joy not only to these older adults but to everyone who witnessed this—staff, families, friends and the community.
We find joy in celebrating life’s key moments together. Days ago, 20 of our residents celebrated their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs together. Most of the group were women for whom Bat Mitzvah was not an option when they were young. One of the men was a Holocaust survivor who spent his 13th year, and more, at Auschwitz. These 20 people studied with the Rabbi for months. They learned, discussed, debated and shared. Receiving their certificates, lighting candles in celebration, their faces were wreathed with smiles and tears were on many cheeks.
Individual moments, group moments — all of them can be filled with joy. We often make music with our older adults, knowing that music is the universal language. Walking the halls with visiting musicians, we sing and entertain and we also sing together, songs that we know, songs that evoke memories. As we connect on that level, as we share not just a melody, but a spirit, we create a connection that touches both of our hearts and a bond that is, in some ways, elemental.
There is great joy in being with older adults, great joy that outweighs the challenges, great joy in knowing how blessed we are to share these years, these days and these moments with them.