Touched By Living Pieces of History: 6 Lessons Learned While Serving Elders

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Some of the most rewarding and meaningful times in my life were spent serving the elder population as an Activity Director in both skilled nursing facilities and retirement communities.  I enjoyed planning and facilitating events and activities that often brought joy, meaning, and laughter to those served.  We would picnic, play trivia & games, sing, and celebrate the seasons and holidays as they rolled around each year.  Providing opportunities for people to connect with others in meaningful ways was immensely fulfilling.  I’ve often wanted to express my gratitude for the “gifts” I received while serving our senior population.  I have felt “eternally compensated” for the often intangible blessings received.  Below, I share six lovely lessons learned while serving seniors that have enriched my life.  I am eternally grateful for the opportunity I was given to serve and the lessons learned in the process.

Six Lessons Learned:

    1. Age is only a reflection of the length of time lived, it doesn’t define the individual.  Society has a tendency to stereotype older adults, often defining elders in ways that are simply inaccurate and, at times, even insulting.  My years of working with them, exposed me to the rich diversity displayed in the population.  I would often marvel at the fact that most of the seniors I served were more active, both socially and physically than I was.  Some of the residents I served in retirement communities were driving and very active in the community.  One gentleman even owned a plane that he occasionally flew!  Most of them regularly participated in community events such as entertainment, happy hour, and seasonal celebrations.  Many participated in trips, traveling to see museums and ball games, while some actively participated in yoga and even biking!  People often are very limited in how they perceive retirement communities and are surprised to learn that they are vibrant and busy.  Many elders were rich in their social networks and enjoyed a variety of leisure pursuits.  This not only allowed me to have better programming and rapport with my residents, but it also cultivated a sense of advocacy related to issues of aging and a voice to dispel myths and harmful stereotypes.   Those I served were an inspiration to me.  I learned to never assume someone’s limitations based on age alone.
    2. Sometimes the simple things in life are the most meaningful. I have been blessed to witness some of the most beautiful acts of kindness and love in the most ordinary ways.  When working in memory care, residents were particularly challenged and often in need of reassurance due to their cognitive difficulties. Many times these acts witnessed were between husband and wife, a spouse spending  hours reading to their loved one, holding their hand to comfort them, and dining with them at each mealtime.  Simple activities like singing, baking, and playing cards were filled with moments of endearment where residents would look after one another even when all of them were struggling.  One of my favorite moments was seeing the look of surprise, excitement, and sheer delight when Santa arrived at a Christmas party to visit our residents in the memory care unit.  Another time, a woman who had severe dementia who often never spoke, busting out in song when we began singing Away and A Manger and several of us had a hard time not losing it.  Her voice often silenced by her disease, came though in a low, guttural tune in joy and determination.  We knew the music had penetrated her, allowing recall of the tune and words.  This was pure gold to me and I still get choked up recalling that beautiful moment of joy.  It’s what we all live for, joy and connection.
    3. Providing dignity in caregiving is executed through the details.  I have been both a caregiver and an Activity Director and have always made it a mission  to ensure that the care and programs provided were executed in a way that promoted dignity.  For example, as an activity director, I would orchestrate teas for our residents to enjoy.  I had younger staff that wanted to quickly throw a tea together without paying attention to the details which was not dignified to me.  No one goes to a restaurant or someone’s home to be entertained and when they arrive things are not ready or put together.  I ensured that the table was nicely decorated with a centerpiece and all the supplies from sugar & honey to cream were ready so that they did not spend a long time waiting to be served.  This level of planning and preparation demonstrated that they were valued whether it was a tea for those in memory care or those in independent living .  As a caregiver for residents that needed assistance with their Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), like showering and eating, simple details like ensuring that their shirt was tucked in appropriately so that creasing and discomfort was minimized, was one way dignity was preserved.  I learned the valuable lesson that details are important and that our dignity is preserved in the process of being aware of the “small stuff”.  I guess the saying “little things mean a lot” rings true when ensuring that a resident’s needs are met.
    4. The right recreation programming cultivates connection and purpose through limitless opportunities to recreate with others.  I’ve learned that the most successful programs are driven by the voice of the residents and offer many events where people can socialize and make new connections while maintaining old ones.  Working in cooperation with residents and cultivating an environment that welcomes feedback, will provide the steam needed for the program to grow and diversify.  The benefits will be plenty!
    5. Go with the flow, Be flexible!  While working in the busy and self-paced environment of a skilled nursing facility, I learned to let go of the unrealistic expectations that things had to go perfectly, as planned.  There were so many factors that were out of my control from dealing with inclement weather that might threaten an event that was planned, to the times events were cancelled to prevent the spread of the flu.  There were also day to day distractions from fire alarms to staff shortages.  And when serving elders who struggled with dementia, it was imperative to stay highly attuned to the mood and emotional state of the residents as some activities had to be canned to prevent agitation and to avoid escalation.  These times taught me to “roll with it”.  I learned that the journey and the connection to others in the process were more important than the strict adherence to the scheduled event.  When events had to be changed due to safety  or other reasons, I learned to “let go” in the process and accept, come what may.  These lessons trickled into my personal life and have helped me adjust to change and be patient in the process.
    6. Recreation is a motivational force in treating illness, both mental and physical.  I learned through the observation of countless recreational pursuits and endeavors, that connecting to some entity other than one’s self is a powerful tool to restore and boost the health of someone struggling.  Endeavors such as gardening, reading, or interacting with pets act as a powerful agents of change in the transformation of a resident’s life, providing stimulation and purpose.  I often remind myself when I am in a slump to engage in the recreational pursuits that I enjoy.  Working with seniors revealed to me that at any stage of our life connection is an important part of what makes us happy and alive.    I was blessed to be a part of the process that helps facilitate opportunities for seniors to recreate and connect.

I’m sure I could list many other lessons that were equally significant, while some of what I learned is difficult to express in words.  The time I spent serving elders changed how I perceived the world.  I was able to touch “pieces” of living history and listen to stories shared by those who lived in very different times.  The voices of my residents will always remain a part of me, and will be valued and cherished for years to come.


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