I’ve had numerous people who have made an impression on me and have shaped my beliefs. One of those is my friend and former educator, Nancy, who used to tell the students, “The greatest gift is the gift of yourself.” Nancy didn’t just say these words; she lived them. Her wisdom has always stayed with me. She influenced me as an educator and as a person.
Each of our experiences helps shape the person we become. When we surround ourselves with selfless people, some of their attitudes will rub off on us.
When my mom (since passed) moved into assisted living, I witnessed genuine acts of kindness by some folks who visited. When I’d spend time with mom, I often saw another visitor named Robert making conversation with many of the residents. He would address them by name, ask how they were doing, and spend a few minutes with each. Many people probably didn’t notice his presence, but his kindness demonstrated his character.
Another regular visitor was my mom’s good friend, Charleen. She was a Eucharistic minister from Mom’s church who brought communion to those who could no longer get to mass. She did it because she is a beautiful person with a kind heart. I spoke to Charleen recently on the phone, and she said something that hit home with me. “When we do things like this (reaching out to others), we get so much back.”
When we observe people acting kind, it influences us. I believe in the “pay it forward” model, and this is my opportunity to make someone’s day a little brighter.
As Mom’s memory declined, it became harder to connect with her. I’d tell her about my adventures at school as an elementary teacher, and she listened carefully, often laughing at the appropriate points in the stories. She liked hearing about my day, but I was still searching for ways to help her connect with the past. I’d often show her family photographs, either scattered in her room or on my phone. There were always smiles and moments when I knew she remembered.
One day it struck me—why don’t I try reading to her? I tried reading engaging articles from the newspaper, short stories, and even her old journals. I could see the sparks, and occasionally I’d see her face show recognition of something from her past. It was not lost on me that we had come full circle and that I was now reading to the person who used to read me stories when I was a child.
While I’m happy in retirement, I miss certain things about teaching. One of the times I miss the most is reading to children. I had hoped to start a reading group at the county library, but Covid halted that goal when the library closed. While the library has since reopened, they are still limiting volunteers.
In the meantime, I decided to reach out to Timber Ridge, the assisted living center where my mom stayed. I go way back with the owner, Larona, as I taught two of her children. Her son was in my first class. I contacted her to see what she thought about me coming in and reading to the residents. Larona, who always has the care of the residents in mind, agreed to let me try.
As many people can probably relate to when trying something new, I had no idea whether this would work or not. Would the residents be able to follow the story? Would they remember it when I only came once or twice a week? One of the first big decisions was choosing something appropriate. I knew I didn’t want to pick something too simplistic that would be condescending, yet I also wanted to choose something they would enjoy with a compelling plot.
One of my goals in retirement is to write books for the age I know best—middle grades. Because I’m trying to learn from other writers, I’ve read many middle-grade (MG) stories in the last couple of years. I chose an excellent book I read recently called Say It Out Loud by Allison Varnes. It’s about a middle school girl named Charlotte with a stuttering problem. She is self-conscious and becomes a target of ridicule for two middle school boys. It is a story of courage and finding one’s voice.
The whole experience of reading to seniors has gone better than I could have ever imagined. I started with one listener—a delightful lady named Margaret. She won me over on the first day when she began taking notes while I was reading. After I finished reading that day, we talked about the story. When I told her I would be back the following week to read some more, she touched my heart by saying, “You’d better. I made a new friend today.”
Since then, I have usually read twice a week. I always start each session by reminding my listeners what happened in the last part of the story. I also made a chart so that they could see how the characters in the story fit with one another. The attendance varies each time, but I have a core of visitors who often come. One week I had as many as ten people. I walk away each time with a feeling of connection. They’ve become my friends in a short time. When my wife and I were in Montana recently to visit our son, I missed them. I had to do something to let them know that. The first thing that came to mind was to send postcards. I also remembered that some residents liked to do jigsaw puzzles, so picking up a Montana puzzle for them was a no-brainer.
One of the lessons I learned a long time ago as a teacher was the need to connect with your students. One of the best ways was to share something about myself. I often bring in some photos of significant events from my life to help us get to know each other better. One week I brought in some pictures from our wedding, and another time I brought in a photo of my first class. Today I showed them a photo of my brothers and me, and next week I’m going to bring pictures of our dog.
Perhaps my favorite part of each visit is when I finish reading, and I have time to chat with the residents. They love telling me about their families and what they did earlier in their lives. I’ve enjoyed these visits, and I can also tell it’s important to them.
I had finished writing this article when my wife and I returned from Montana and received the sad news that one of my listeners passed while we were gone. I can’t write this piece without mentioning Shirley. I had met her some years before when her grandson, Logan, was in my second-grade class. She was one of the people I connected with most on my visits to Timber Ridge. I didn’t know her well, but we had bonded in the short time I visited. She shared about having been a skilled seamstress and a lover of crafts. I learned her arthritis made it hard for her to do the things that once gave her so much pleasure. We talked a lot about her family and the pride she felt for each. She told me about her husband and how much she loved him. She spoke in glowing terms of her son, daughter, and son-in-law. Perhaps the most touching of all was when she talked about her grandson. She wanted me to know that while she was proud of his academic accomplishments (high school valedictorian) and college graduate at UC Santa Cruz, she was most proud that he was a good person. He had recently been in town and always made the time to visit her. That meant everything to her.
While I’m sad that I won’t be able to continue our conversations, I am glad to have gotten to know Shirley. Without taking a risk, I would never have spent this quality time with her.
I think the treatment of the elderly in our society is sometimes shameful. Even as age takes away some physical and mental abilities, they deserve the utmost respect. They should receive the best care. I encourage anyone reading my post never to forget that. If any of these three things happen because of my words, then I will feel my post has accomplished its intended goals:
- Don’t fear something because it might not turn out as we hope. That’s not a valid reason because it also might exceed our expectations.
- Value every member of society. All lives matter, regardless of age.
- Nancy had it right—the greatest gift is the gift of yourself. Please pay it forward.