In my final week at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, a nonprofit organization that provides friendship and companionship to isolated elders in San Francisco, I attended mass at the Jesuit Cathedral in San Francisco with a co-worker. In the very powerful sermon, the priest noted one of St. Ignatius’ famous examines: imagine ourselves at the end of our lives either on our deathbed or after our death standing before Christ, our Judge. How would we feel about our current decision then? What would we say to Christ about the decision we have just made? We should choose now the course of action that would give us happiness and joy in looking back on it from our deathbed and in presenting it to Christ on the day of our judgment.
Fortunately and unfortunately, it is the elderly who, in the words of Scott Simon, “have looked across the street at death for a decade”. They wake up every morning forced to reflect upon the possibilities of death’s doors. As a result, our elderly have compiled a great perspective on what in life is important and why, but unfortunately, a lot of their wisdom falls on deaf ears as our society tends to isolate and ignore the insight of the elderly population. We tend to see the elderly as waiting to die instead of recognizing the wisdom that can be found in their experiences that they have accumulated and worked to understand over the course of a lifetime.
Working one on one with elders throughout the summer, I was able to take with me much more than professional experience from this internship. I received wisdom, through the powerful life advice and relationships that allowed me to reflect upon what meaning I want to give to my life.
In my final week at LBFE, I made it my mission to do more than to listen to the stories possessed by each elder, but also to collect as much life advice as I could from the forgotten heroes that I was surrounded by on a daily basis. With the elders that I had established relationships with over the course of 9 weeks through birthday visits, phone visiting and regular in-home visits, I asked them “what advice would you give to me as a twenty year old as I go forth in my life?” What I found was that even though it seemed that I did not get particularly close to some of the elders, each one was equally excited to be asked for their wisdom in the form of advice. It was a powerful feeling to sense that even strangers want to help their fellow humans to have the best of what life has to offer.
Listed below are the collected suggestions about life given to me, advice that is equally valuable for all:
Albert, 88 years old, bedridden fighting stage 4 cancer (Phone Visiting Elder):
“You have your whole life to lead. If you’re ever uncertain or unhappy about something, there’s no reason not to go to friends to lift you up; if they’re really your friends, they will already be there because they’ll sense that something is wrong. And when it comes to boyfriends, never lend them money – they shouldn’t be asking in the first place, and if their own parents won’t lend them money then why should you? Always be kind and never allow anyone to shake you negatively. Don’t associate with people who are too busy talking about people. I’ve found that people are too busy filling their minds with a lot of unnecessary junk, too busy worrying about this and that; in life, you’re going to have ups and downs, but I’ve found that ‘only through a broken heart can the light enter in.’ You become a better, warmer, and gentler human when you face the hurts in life, but it’s always a choice you have to make.”
Maria, 83 years old, widowed Red Cross nurse (Cuddle Club Event):
It is possible to learn to love and fall in love with a stranger.
Josephine, 87 years old, North Beach SF native, 100% Italian (In-Home Visits): Buy a house that can be made easily handicapped accessible at any time – electric stairs are expensive.
Bessie, 77 years old, widowed from Shanghai (Phone Visiting Elder and In-Home visits):
“Be careful which osteoporosis medication to take because specific ones cause gum decay, causing you to lose your teeth, no matter how much you flossed in your youth. Also, the waiting list for many nice senior housing complexes has a 10-20 year waiting list, so put your name on a waiting list when you turn 50. Continue to keep busy, both mentally and physically by doing word and number puzzles or reading. Most importantly, keep in touch.”
James, 82 years old, Korean War Veteran (Phone Visiting Elder):
“Go back to California later in life.”
Bob, 82 years old, disabled Army veteran (Birthday Celebration Visit):
“Don’t let people make decisions for your life – only you can be in charge of your own happiness. If you love someone, and want to marry them, then do it because it’s not up to your parents to decide who brings you happiness. Your mother didn’t let you choose who your father was going to be for your whole life, therefore, she shouldn’t be allowed to choose your husband. Most importantly, enjoy life because it’s too short to be miserable.”
So on one of my last nights, as I sat on the Contra Costa Rock in North Berkeley, looking out over the San Francisco Bay with a panoramic view of the sun setting over Sausalito to my right, next to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in front of me, and the Bay Bridge along with the Cal Berkley Tower to my left, I reflected upon my experience in San Francisco working with Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. As the fog rolled in over the mountains bringing with it a cool breeze, nothing has ever felt that close to perfectly at ease. Every bit of nerves and anxiety that I had felt before I left for California rolled away on my first day, just as the fog rolls off of the Bay each day – ever so calmly. As I reflected upon the advice and lessons about life and love given to me from my elders, I recognized how proud I was that I made the decision to explore such a new city and discover such insight within an overlooked population of people that deserve so much admiration and respect. Nine weeks prior, these people were all complete strangers, and now I take with me the general message that I learned from each one of them and the experience as a whole: Nothing else matters in the end except the people you fill your life with.