Recently, I felt sadness for a complete stranger. Maybe it was timing more than anything else. Perhaps I was unusually fragile that day. Or maybe it was purely selfish, having suddenly realized I had missed an opportunity to learn all I could from one member of a truly important generation. No matter the reason, empathy had hit me hard.
As I’ve had more time to reflect, I find myself wondering if the importance of those who came before us has been lost on my generation and even more so on the generation who follows me. I’m terribly afraid that we’ve taken the wisdom of those who preceded us for granted, brushing them off as old, out of touch or unreasonably sad and angry. Had I capitalized on all of the free life lessons that came directly from real life experiences? Just how many of these opportunities had I missed? And why had I not questioned myself until now?
Prior to this awakening, I would have undeniably omitted myself from falling into the category with those who didn’t think twice about this – with those who cared more about their own life than the lives of those who helped shape it. But now, I wonder if their significance has been lost on me as well.
Let’s back up. Last year, I started volunteering with the organization Meals on Wheels. I had seen the TV commercial many times and figured that I was plenty capable of “dropping off a hot meal and saying a quick hello” but after just a few deliveries, I learned that it was so much more than that.
Combating senior hunger (initiated through the loss of independence due to declining health) may be the foundation of this organization but combating other forms of hunger – hunger for companionship, for conversation, for friendship, for love – those are what continue to drive it. It truly is about “taking care of those, who once took care of us”.
For me, the experience has been priceless. I have some humorous stories that I could entertain you with. I’ve seen and heard a lot, some of which is forever burned in my mind, including moments like the following:
- Being greeted by a senior in just his underwear who seemed confidently unaware
- The time I felt supreme guilt for possibly being responsible for an escaped cat
- The few times that I’ve been treated as a thrift shop representative and was gifted many undesired trinkets
- The countless, unsolicited, reports I’ve received of ailments and escaping bodily fluids
I’ve certainly gathered a strange combination of happy and sad. I’ve listened to many “woe is me” narratives and truly feel I’ve been witness to deep depression onset by old age. I’ve had a quick glimpse into the life we don’t consider when we’re praying for a longer one. We don’t fully understand what is connected to such a wish. We don’t realize that we’re asking for a life that could be full of insurmountable odds – a life that may be pretty darn sad and lonely.
I quickly learned that behind many closed doors lies physical and emotional pain. There is sickness and loneliness. I was shown a clear picture of loss of life within life. Many of these people sit under their own dark cloud in secret until forced to open the door and then they either hide that sadness and pain or display it in plain sight.
I promise it’s not all sad. I’ve seen the opposite end of the spectrum, too. Some client’s are content or seemingly happy enough and they all have been grateful and kind. Some still have their companion or at least someone who helps them maintain the “pep” in their step and love in their heart. But many don’t and on this particular day, I realized that we all have someone, until we don’t.
That day, an unfamiliar face opened a familiar door. She was a somber faced woman, dressed in black. “We’ll be cutting down to one meal. Did they tell you?” At first, this didn’t strike me as strange. I had always secretly wondered if the man who lived there had requested two meals just for himself. Today, I was ashamed of my assumption, which usually made me secretly smirk. As strangers, we sometimes do that. We imagine other people’s lives. We wonder. We speculate. But seldom do we put in the effort to seek out the truth or learn a stranger’s story. I wish I had asked. I wish I had asked where his wife was every time I did the drop off. He would have likely told me, “She is sick in bed.” Instead, today his niece told me that she had died. I’d been to her home countless times and never knew she was there.
In that single moment I was harshly reminded of my real duty. It wasn’t just to feed. It was to care. Bringing this newly widowed man food wasn’t going to heal his heartbreak, his sadness or his loneliness but maybe our next conversation or the one after that, would.
Food is important. It’s a basic human need but it’s not the only thing that feeds the body and it won’t feed someone forever. Stranger’s stories are just as important as mine. These bodies and souls were once like me, and one day, I may be just like them. They paved my path, your path. They saw things I may never see in my lifetime – some of which I’ll yearn to, other’s which I pray I’ll never have to.
So the next time you cross paths with an elder, stop to ask them how they are. Ask them where they’re going. But please, ask them where they’ve been. One day, you may be them. They (I) may not tell you they are (I am) sad and lonely and would like to talk but I promise you, they (I) do.