By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“Sport creates friendships and a sense of belonging that is unrivaled.” –Alex Newsome
Bernie moved into Colony and quickly became an integral part of our community. He was smart and helpful and interested in doing more. When a part-time staff position opened up, he was first in line to apply. We cautioned him that being both a resident and a staff member was challenging. He still wanted the job. He was truly great. He never missed a shift, filled in for others, and was diligent and hard working. He truly had his finger on the pulse of the building.
Unfortunately, he was not well. Over time, he grew sicker and sicker. We could tell he wasn’t feeling well. His normal smile was briefer, his laughter was gone. He was pale and growing slower. We knew what was going on and he did, too. He knew there was no cure and that treatments had already bought him all the time he was going to get. We talked to him about resigning or retiring but he was not interested. He finally went to the hospital, but he died a day later, only missing one shift.
None of us understood why he was holding on so desperately, why he wanted to work when he wasn’t feeling well. But a recent conversation with another resident helped me understand what the job meant to him.
I was talking to a female resident who joined a men’s slow pitch softball team in her 80s. As I never understood sports (neither as an observer nor a player) I asked her why she put her body at risk for a game. She said it was an opportunity to be social, to be competitive, and to belong.
When she said the word “belong,” it all hit me at once. Bernie belonged to us. Despite the fact he was dying, he did not want to give up the feeling of being part of our team. Belonging meant family. In his darkest hour, he needed to belong more than he needed the rest.
Colony, like many companies, is undergoing an internal self-examination about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some companies add “belonging” to this list and I have resisted. Companies create atmospheres that have diversity, equity and inclusion built in, but belonging is what people feel when these companies build their cultures correctly. We cannot outright control how people feel, but we can set the table so that everyone feels welcome.
And this is what has escaped me about sports. Sports welcomes everyone. If you can’t play you can coach, you can cheer, you can memorize statistics, you can watch games with your buddies. Adaptive sports are even better because even more people get to play. And when your team wins, we all get the rush of being part of something greater. In 2004 when the Red Sox curse was finally lifted, I belonged. I was part of history and felt the connection to my father and to my son. That day, I felt the connection that teams offer.
Brene Brown noted, “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break, We fall apart…. We get sick.” For some people, being on a team or even caring about a team is enough. For Bernie, Colony was his team. We were enough. We kept him healthy. Belonging kept him alive even longer.
Cheers to our teammate, Bernie, and to all those on his team that helped set the table so he could belong.