What the elderly can teach us

By Jade Hrdi | March 27, 2017

Before getting married, I spent one afternoon a week with hospice patients.

I wasn’t taking care of their physical needs, but I was alleviating some pain.

Loneliness is horrible pain, and the elderly in our culture face it daily. I felt a personal call to this work of mercy – visiting the sick – especially as I mended my own wounds at the time.

Margaret* lived on her own, she’d never been married and she didn’t have any kids.

She relied on me and the Meals on Wheels delivery drivers for company.

“They always bring me the peppers,” I remember her saying. “I hate peppers. I have tried to like peppers because they tell me they are good for me, but I do not like them, and I will not eat them.”

I heard this every week when I visited, and I thought it was funny every time. I don’t like peppers, either.

She was 87, had a lot of education and experience and she’d traveled much of the country. She’d experimented (“I can’t talk about all the things I did.”), she tried new things. But she would not try peppers.

Her pickiness was shocking to me, but it shouldn’t have been. She is just as much human as I am, and she has her preferences. I don’t know why I thought she’d like everything.

I had this crazy assumption that because they were old, they no longer had defects, and having an irrational dislike of peppers seemed like a defect.

I had put all elderly in this box, thinking they’re all like my grandma. They are most definitely not all like my grandma, and I am so thankful for that.

I learned so much from Margaret and the other patients that I visited.

We gain (at least) three things as we age:

  1. Freedom: The older you get, the more your choices for your own life are respected. (Including not liking peppers.)
  2. Responsibility: The older you get, the more you are responsible for those choices, but also for the lives of the least around you.
  3. Experience: The older you get, the more tragedies and joys you’ve experienced, and they all impact your worldview.

Frank and Jess, a married couple I visited, showed me these things. They also cemented for me the importance of deadlines.

We aren’t here forever.

For those in hospice, they’ve been diagnosed to die within six months.

And while factors change as you near death and no diagnosis is 100 percent accurate, it’s a deadline you can’t fight. You can’t postpone it.

You will eventually die.

“Get what you want to get done, done,” Jess said to me.

A lot of people will say that when you volunteer, you get more out of it than the people you help. That’s true with hospice volunteering. I may have visited some lonely people, but they changed my worldview.

*I changed the names of the patients to protect privacy.

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