Until my employment as a full-time Life Enrichment Associate at West River Health Campus in Evansville, Indiana, I believed life ended at 50. Granted, exceptions came to mind immediately—high-ranking government leaders, namely, the President of the United States; business magnates like the CEO of such a major corporation as ALCOA, etc. A sideways glance at my examples of successful leaders exposes my fatal flaw at 50 (and a few years beyond): great power, fame and wealth alone meant success to me. No wonder I felt so empty inside at age 56. I had overlooked the fact that great power, fame and wealth elude most of humankind—thank God. The world needs so much more – caretaking, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, patience, laughter and, biggest of all, love.
Working with the residents at West River Health Campus has helped me realize what really matters in life once again. My duties are simple: lead a chair exercise class four to five days a week, inspire a monthly journaling circle, contribute to additional Life Enrichment groups as directed, get residents to and from Life Enrichment activities daily (i.e., Communion, cooking hour, Bingo, art, music, Friday’s Happy Hour), work with a few residents in one-on-one Life Enrichment activities.
The rewards are many. I’ve lost my baby fat while at West River, nearly 10 pounds in 12 weeks, so I have gained physical stamina. Likewise, I’ve gained self-confidence through successfully leading and assisting with a variety of activities at West River. In fact, I’ve enjoyed my role as an instructor in this setting, a joy absent when I taught college English. My faith has deepened as a result of the witness of some strong Christian residents and their Christian mentors. Sincere in their words and actions, they are, as is said, “the real deal.” Or one might say, “they walk the talk.”
I’m not bothered anymore to read in my East Coast alma mater’s alumni magazine about yet another well-connected English major landing a job with a fancy title in a big New York publishing company. Like our residents, I’m learning to collaborate with my colleagues instead of comparing myself to them, a frustrating activity at best; a conceited activity at worst. From our Executive Director Carla Baker (affectionately known as Mom) to our Life Enrichment Director Kristen Raben right on down to us Life Enrichment department associates, we work as a team and support one another so we build on our strengths and forgive our weaknesses. As a result, we have no more need for comparisons; we value each other just the way we are.
Within a couple of weeks after my employment, I knew the first names of nearly every resident on our campus. A few weeks later, I could name at least a couple of likes and dislikes of each of those 60 residents. A laminated chart, common in every resident room, helped me to remember and to learn the names and preferences of the residents. Upon entering any resident’s room at West River Health Campus, visitors will soon notice a chart recording the resident’s basic biographical information, including name and favored nickname(s), spouse or late spouse’s name, child or children’s name or names, along with the names of any additional special family members or friends. Hobbies and interests are listed on the chart also. Printed last are the resident’s words of advice, won through the school of hard knocks. I am always eager to read the words of advice – like so much gold gleaming through quartz.
Although our residents offer different statements or quotes to encourage others along their way, the words of advice usually all point to the same four qualities: kindness, compassion, patience, and humor. They’ve kept their values straight all along.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I came to believe in myself and discovered my life’s purpose when I focused on the needs and wants of the West River residents rather than on my own. The shift in vision happened relatively easily. When I saw the limits my residents face in downsizing their belongings, in physical mobility and in cognitive awareness, I absolutely stopped comparing my lot in life to anyone else’s circumstances. Humility whispered, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I started giving thanks for my numerous blessings.
The residents are my heroes, my role models. In spite of their physical and mental limitations, which increase as they age, they treat staff and each other with dignity and respect. They maintain a sense of humor about themselves and the world. We can all hope we age as gracefully as the years advance.
Once I started minding my elders, I stopped demanding an entitlement from heaven. Immediately, God opened the heavens and showered me with grace. My life’s purpose is all I ever really wanted: to help people. That I make a living wage while I do so—that’s gravy.
West River Health Campus residents have proven to me senior citizens serve a valuable purpose in our society, whatever their political persuasion or socio-economic standing. Our elders play an essential role in our spiritual redemption when we observe their actions while they cope with daily adversity. Although I still have my moments when I think life ended for me at 50, interacting with West River residents brings out my best self, and soon enough, my focus shifts back to others instead of myself.
In my mind’s eye, I witness a common conversation at West River: “I got you. Do you have me?” a resident will ask, holding out a hand to clasp the hand of the one addressed. “I’ve got you,” is the reply. “We’ve got each other,” they’ll say in unison as they smile.
We’ve all got each other at West River Health Campus. Let others seek the Fountain of Youth. We’ve discovered the secret to happiness. No finer treasure may be found.