Every few weeks the Volunteer Coordinator at Hospice sends out a new list of patients who have rotated onto our service. As a volunteer I can review the list and see if I am interested in taking on anyone new. Recently I scanned the list and saw a woman who is 107 living with a relative. Bingo! I wanted her. I thought it would be exciting to meet and interact with someone who is 107 years old. This is my experience.
Rarely do I pick a patient who lives in a private home. I get nervous about where the house is located, who lives there, is the person well attended to, conditions of the home etc. Typically, I go to a facility either private or state run where there are nurses and CNAs.
My desire to meet someone 107 years old was so strong I decided to go to the private home. I was all in. I called the family member/caregiver to set up my visit. I was told my patient was fashionable, chatty and liked gospel music. I was also told she did not like fat people, she couldn’t understand why people were fat. (this was in case I was fat) I was to be prepared for her to look me up and down and not take any comments she might make personally. After all she is 107.
I went to the house in an upscale neighborhood. I met the relative/caregiver and made my way upstairs to meet the 107-year-old. I walked in and sitting in a soft comfy chair was a little black woman, under 100 lbs, dressed in very modern purple tights and a sweater. Her hair was fluffed, and she quite obviously looked me up and down while introductions were made. She said, “It’s good you are skinny”. Then the caregiver left.
It was just us. Normally it is quite easy for me strike up a conversation. I just start asking questions which usually works. Not this time, she just stared at me. I thought where is the chatty 107-year-old? She finally looked at me and said, “I am not going to answer your questions because I don’t know you.” I thought crap, now what?
In Hospice training they tell you when it doesn’t seem to be going well to just be still. Just sit and see if improvement comes naturally to the situation. So, I just sat there. It was very quiet and seemed like a long time. After 3-4 minutes I pointed to a picture on the wall of a sunflower. I said, “I like sunflowers” and she said, “is that what that is?” I said yes. We talked about sunflowers and how they follow the sun. There was another stretch of silence. I finally looked at her and said, “Do you like animals?” She said, “Dogs love me, all dogs love me.” I said, “do you want to see pictures of my dog?” She lit up and said “yes”.
I proceeded to show her every picture on my cell phone. We talked, we laughed, and she told a few little stories. When I showed her a picture of my 88-year-old father, she said, “he looks good he is so young!” Everything is relative when you are 107. The visit ended well.
My second visit went even better. She had on a pair of colorful tights and a sweater which she bought at Goodwill. She had foam rollers in her hair tied up in a bandana. She was working on her hairstyle. She immediately recognized me, and she began to talk. She spoke of her long dead husband and how they would dance the waltz, she in a pretty dress he in tails. She talked about Trump and Obama. She asked me if any black men were in office, or women for that matter of any color. She had heard Oprah might run for President and asked me if it was true. She asked me how much I weighed, how much my haircut cost, what kind of car I drove, where I got my clothes, and did I know a lot of people.
Not that the conversation was always clear because it wasn’t. I still sat amazed that I was in the presence of someone so old. There will be more visits I am sure. Often, after a Hospice visit I need time to decompress. Sometimes I am very tired. I think about how the interaction made me feel. I ask myself if I was helpful. I am aware I need to be centered in myself before I can be present with someone else. Especially when my role is support, comfort, companionship and even more so if there is family present.
I think of my patient often during my days. She is a black woman born in 1910. The timing of her birth made me want to dig deeper into history and better place her in its context. Black slaves were brought to North American in 1619. Our colonies and later states, dealt in the slave trade for 246 years. Emancipation came in 1861. Followed by “separate but equal” in 1896. The NAACP began in 1909 one year before my patient’s birth.
This was followed by the Harlem Renaissance in 1920, African Americans fighting in WWII in 1941, Jackie Robinson in 1947, Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Core and Freedom rides in May of 1961. I stopped to consider this. I really didn’t have an awareness that the freedom rides occurred in my lifetime having grown up in the north. It is quite different living in the south where this is woven in the fabric of history. Yet in 1961 my birth year, they were taking place, and people of all kinds were participating. This is when my point of perception began, as did hers in 1910.
We had Martin Luther King “I have a dream” in 1963. The Civil rights act of 1964, the march to Selma in 1965. The voting rights act of 1965 followed by MLK being assassinated in 1968. Oprah launched her talk show in 1986. Barack Obama is elected President in 2008. We still have racial tension today exacerbated by the politics of the Alt Right and our struggle towards immigration reform.
Wow, my patient has seen a lot of angst, progress and change during her 107 years. It gives me pause. A needed pause to comprehend and understand another’s person’s journey through this life. What they have seen, experienced and to what they have bore witness.
I do not think of these things on a regular basis. My thoughts are more self-contained, self-centered. I am learning it is through reaching out, interacting with others not like me, that my point of view becomes challenged. It gets stretched and molded into something new. Fortunately, sometimes my opportunities just come to me. Like seeing her name and description on the Hospice listing and knowing she was going to be mine. There is a reason she is my patient. Probably because I need to be reminded that people’s lives can be much different than mine.
There is much we can learn by simply listening to other people’s stories. Taking them in and absorbing them. Everyone has a story and not all of them feel like Beaver Cleaver. Not all of them feel safe. Not all took place when society was calm and stable. Sometimes people’s stories took place in times of rapid change, sustained instability and under harsh conditions. Whether it be in society or in families. Some stories are wonderful, peaceful and leave us feeling comfort or even possibly envy, whatever the case may be.
Meeting a 107-year-old has me thinking about all of this. She has a certain je ne sais quoi about her that I like. I always say that people’s lives are shared in the stories they tell. Maybe the better part of wisdom is to listen more. It is here I believe we find the compassion, the sensitivity to understand another’s journey.
"This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor...Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Until next time.