By Marianne Delorey
I remember holding my son’s hands while he learned to walk. There is nothing quite like the feeling of letting go and seeing your baby walk away, not needing you anymore. It is one of the most complicated emotions I have ever experienced — in equal measure frightening, heartening, exciting, sad, and joyful.
Working with the elderly is such a different experience. Yes, we hold their hands, a physical connection that symbolizes a joint mission, compassion, and so much more. But when it is time to let go, the emotions are so much less mixed. Yes, there is often relief, but mostly there is sadness and regret.
I cannot change the sadness. It is normal to feel the loss of someone who you used to see every day. But, I might be able to change the regret. So often, we don’t get a chance to say goodbye. People go into the hospital and move away or die unexpectedly overnight. This column is an attempt to say goodbyes in advance to people who have not yet died. There are so many people who have impacted me, both professionally and personally, so I will talk about them in generalities.
To the fighters: I love seeing the spark in your eye — your refusal to “go along to get along” helped challenge my perceptions of aging. I appreciate when you were just sticking up for yourself and even if I was “in your way” I have been glad to see you say what you believed. Thank you for reminding me that not everyone is the same and that I am not perfect.
To the humble ones: You are my favorite group by far. Your quiet wisdom and serene smiles are why I work with the elderly. You typically stick to yourself, although you certainly have friends. You are so gentle that you probably don’t even recognize yourself in my words. You help me become a better person because you focus me on what is really important.
To the forgetful ones: Many people do not see in you what I see. It does not matter to me what has been lost. What matters to me what is left. And what you still retain is a purity of person that few can rival. There is no question where you stand. You do not try to pretend for anyone. You are perfect just the way you are.
To the lost ones: I see in you a reason to be better. Everyone should feel at home and full of purpose. You may not feel that way now, but if I am worth my salt, I will help you feel valued.
To those I don’t yet know: I’m sorry I have not yet stopped what I am doing to learn your story. You death will be mourned, not just for who you are, but for who you could have been to me.
To all my elders, thank you. I appreciate what you have shared with me and both individually and collectively you have mattered. You have given my life meaning. From you I have learned a great deal about who I am and who I want to be. You have been an inspiration for successful aging and I hope someday I can be as successful as you.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or firstname.lastname@example.org and www.colonyretirementhomes.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com