Walking in Your Elder's Shoes

October 17, 2013

It is very easy to get so busy with life and all its complexities that although we go through the motions, we do not give the thought to our elders that we should. Of course I don't suggest for a moment that they aren't cared for or that their physical needs are not met. But that is not the whole story, not by a long shot.

Just recently I noticed a new sadness dominating the mood of a senior that I help care for in his home. The first time I came away with this impression I just wrote it off, thinking that he was just having a bad day. But as this sadness and diminishing communication became the norm with my visits, I realized that it was not a temporary state and needed to be examined more closely.

So with the next visit I was 'present'. What I mean by this is that I was really there-- not just spending my obligatory 60 minutes with him making benign conversation-- hardly listening or reacting to his comments. But on this day all my senses were on alert. My questions were thoughtful and probing. My experience was shocking.

I learned so much. His late wife's birthday was approaching. He was not sleeping well, often falling asleep at 3 or 4 in the morning. The autumn was always a time that he had volunteered with the regiment, going to Camp Borden to help with the cadets. Being an old Air Force guy, this was always a highlight for him.

He was sad when he went into the stores and saw all the festive preparation for Thanksgiving and Christmas. For you see, he and his wife were childless and his wife of 59 years had died and watching the families gearing up for these holidays made him lonely. And even all that was not the whole story. An animal lover, I found out that one of his cats had stopped eating and the other, albeit 18 years old, was failing.

How had all this eluded me? No wonder he was depressed and lethargic. My twice weekly visits for a cup of tea and an occasional drink of single malt were just an ineffective routine, probably one tailored to make me feel better as it sure wasn't coin anything for him.

For you see, if I really wanted to make a difference for him and really support him I needed to step into his shoes and walk in them. I needed to shed my haste and really be mindful about the input that I was getting from him.

So my visits changed. We pulled out old albums, started going out for lunch every two weeks, enjoyed a couple of drives in the country to see the leaves. We took his cats to the vet (something he could not manage on his own) and I dropped him off at the legion to have a visit with his buddies, something his limited mobility had not allowed.

And you know, I felt better than he did-- for when I put on those old, worn and tired shoes of his, I felt his pain and I understood. And somewhere in my deepest toughest, i understood that this slow retreat from life will come to us all, and fleetingly i felt vulnerable, hoping that someone would don my shoes when I needed it most.

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