By Catherine Lieuwen
Now more than ever, senior citizens need us. And whether we know it or not, we need them too.
In an April 13, 2020 article in the Washington Post, Sydney Page comments, “As cases of covid-19 surge, long-term care homes and retirement facilities have faced an agonizing dilemma: Elderly people are most likely to die if infected by the virus, and yet, they are also most likely to suffer from long-term solitude and social isolation.”
This is precisely why technological advancements like Facetime have become such a blessing. When the Coronavirus was peaking in the UK, a progressive-thinking nursing home in England set up a “buddy system” to pair up young kids with lonely seniors to meet and chat on Facetime. Smiles lit up on the seniors’ faces as the happy young children befriended them and told them all about themselves and what was going on in the world. Formerly sad seniors were happy again as they listened to the children and shared their own stories from their youth.
Now more than ever, it’s a great time to adopt a senior citizen.
In Sydney Page’s article, a 92-year-0ld Holocaust survivor named Jaqueline Kimmelstiel got to watch her great-grandson learn to ride a bike. She was delighted when he waved at her via Facetime as he rode by. Though she wasn’t there in person, “I sure felt like I was,” she said. She was elated, and her son loved that his great grandmother could witness the momentous event.
At a time when in-person visiting is sadly off limits, Facetime and other video chat features have become a silver lining in the pandemic, which has been particularly hard on seniors. In fact, some seniors report communicating with their friends and families even more than before.
The Coronavirus pandemic has led a lot of people to reach out to those they’ve lost touch with or haven’t talked to in a while. I myself discovered the joys of adopting a senior when I reached out to some of my mom’s friends. My mom died nine years ago at the age of 85, but a few of her friends are still living. The other day I called my family’s 80-something housekeeper Mela, a Latina Catholic woman. She was thrilled to hear from me. She mentioned feeling alone because she can’t risk going out due to her age. But we decided to make plans for fun things to do together after the pandemic restrictions are lifted. She said we’re going to take a drive to Santa Fe and go to the art markets – something my mom and I used to do and that I miss so much. Then, we decided that when her favorite senior center opens, we’re going to take an art class – for free! (I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw and now I’m going to get my chance!) Mela said she has a picture of my mom at Christmas to give me. As I lost all of my pictures when I moved, this is a very precious gift. Being super religious, Mela said that my mom is looking down on me from heaven. This warmed my heart – something I really needed to hear.
I also reached out to my mom’s best friend Adeline, another elderly Latina lady. She knew my mom so well, and she remembers so many fun and funny stories of my mom and my family. Now I call her often. Adeline is always supportive of me and is particularly encouraging when I am frustrated or feel like I’m failing. Like my mom, she has the perspective of having a long life and seeing how the things I worry about aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. She encourages me to “be patient” and not give up. She has the utmost faith in me and gives me pep talks when I’m down. Seniors can give us these kinds of gifts! I get from Adeline what I can’t get from my mom anymore.
There are myriad reasons to befriend a senior, especially during this pandemic when loneliness is rampant and seniors are stuck in nursing homes. Poor Adeline can’t even leave her room at her nursing home – all the food is delivered to her and she can’t go outside. So, when I call her, she is over the moon!
Seniors can show you how to live life. After all, as they know, life is short! When my dad’s secretary, Olive, was alive, she would invite me over for cookies and tea. Not only that, she would pour a glass of good champagne – in the middle of the day! “Why not?” She quipped, “You only live once!” My dad died when I was 18 so I didn’t really know him. But Olive knew him well, having worked with him daily for decades. She would tell me stories of my dad that not even my mom knew. Learning interesting things about my dad and his life was pure gold. If you’ve lost a parent, old people like Olive, Mela and Adeline can keep the memory of your parents alive.
Think of what you can learn from talking to a senior: They are walking encyclopedias. Some have survived the Spanish Flu. They’ve been through the Great Depression, they fought in or knew people fighting in World War II, they survived Smallpox. They weathered the Korean War. They lived in fear of the Cold War. They were ravaged by the Vietnam War. They knew where they were when Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot. They knew many Presidents. They have so much to share. You need not visit a library ever again!
Many old people have fascinating stories to tell – all you need to do is ask. My beloved optometrist, Dr. Morton Greenspoon, a.k.a. “optometrist to the stars”, worked well into his nineties. He made contact lenses for special effects for movies. He designed the creepy eyes for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video as well as the green eyes of “The Incredible Hulk”! He even knew Elvis! You’d be surprised at what you’ll find out from a person who’s been around a long time.
In addition to interesting facts and information, seniors have wisdom that us younger folks lack. On purpose, I see a psychiatrist who is well into his eighties. He is incredibly knowledgeable about hundreds of diagnoses. When I worriedly asked him if he thought I was bi-polar, he crossed his arms, looked at me and squinted, “I’m not impressed. I’ve seen it all, kid.”
Similarly, I chose to see a therapist in his eighties. He has seen and been though a lot in his many decades, and very little phases him. He helps to put my problems in perspective. The things you worry about are not such a big deal if you’ve been through a few wars!
Having lived many years, seniors can give us perspective on your problems that younger people can’t, helping you see that “big” things you worry about may not be so big after all.
Prior to the pandemic, my brother’s friend Rick visited his dad in a nursing home. He said that the highlight of each resident’s day or week was when their children came to visit. But what if they don’t have children? Imagine how lonely they must feel. Perhaps you know a senior who is childless or whose children live far away. Who knows what can happen if you reach out to them – you could make a valuable and wise old friend who could teach you a lot about life!
So, during this pandemic and beyond, try befriending a senior.
A daughter of a senior in Page’s Washington Post article remarked, “I get off FaceTime, and I immediately text my siblings to tell them that Mom has not looked better in years.”
Remarking on the facetime habit, a happy senior said, “It’s wonderful. I feel like I’m right there with them. It’s very therapeutic, actually.”
Reaching out to a senior now can be extremely rewarding. You can talk on the phone and chat via Facetime and other video apps. After the pandemic, when the restrictions are lifted, your friendship with your senior will will be even better – lunches, Bingo, flea markets, movies – oh the places you and your senior will go!