Most college students love Friday afternoons. After all, this point in the week marks the end of our classes and the beginning of weekend fun.
For me, though, Friday afternoons meant something else I came to love: two and a half hours of volunteering at a nursing home for a college course.
Like many, I’ve always been told to ‘respect my elders.’ However, I strive to do more than just respect them.
And this was the perfect opportunity for me to do that.
I vividly remember one of my first tasks assigned to me as a volunteer: helping prepare guacamole.
Yep. Guacamole. At a nursing home. (It was fun.)
Although this was a seemingly odd job, it provided me with first-hand experience of seeing just how happy the simple things in life can make people.
For example, I remember one woman was so excited to eat the chips and dip because they reminded her of trips she took to Mexico when she was younger. So, in addition to enjoying a tasty snack, I spent almost an hour hearing all about her adventures. More importantly, though, I was able to see her face light up and one of the most genuine smiles creep across her face.
As Andy Rooney, American radio and television writer, once said, “The best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.”
Because they have a wealth of knowledge about all aspects of life.
Some may be able to tell you what their lives were like growing up during the Great Depression or World War II — events we might think of as far removed from today. But our elders can also teach us values and life lessons through the memories they share.
Everyone has a story to tell. It’s our job to pull up a chair and listen to the older generations.
At other times as a volunteer, I was in charge of taking some residents out for ‘wheelchair walks’ (when the weather cooperated).
Conveniently, the nursing home is situated next to a beautiful pond with shimmering water and chirping birds. Of course, this was the place everyone requested to visit.
On one particular walk, I remember a woman wanted to keep going around and around the concrete loop. She just loved looking at all of the blossoming flowers and telling me interesting tidbits of information about them. (To this day, I credit her with providing me the answers to some tricky Jeopardy questions about nature.)
When we were heading back to the nursing home, we had a conversation I will (hopefully) never forget.
“Ashley,” she said. “Thank you for taking me out today. I had fun, but I wish I could walk on my own.”
At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Every day, I take walking for granted, even complaining sometimes about how far away I have to park at the grocery store.
But, before I knew it, words just came out of my mouth.
“You don’t need to walk,” I told her. “That’s what I’m here for — I’ll be your legs.”
And I was.
In a world in which productivity and efficiency are valued, though, the old are often neglected because they cannot walk or work like the rest of us.
Even worse, Pope Francis points out this mentality often causes us to see our elders as “a burden” instead of human beings with gifts to offer society.
To counteract this impaired thinking, we need to become a support system for the aging population: if they need help walking around, lend your arm; if they need help remembering where they put their keys, help them look; if they need a person to talk to, listen.
As another part of my volunteer service, I spent some time in the memory care unit where residents dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia live.
Although they did not always remember who I was, I felt an unexplainable connection to the residents.
For example, almost every time I volunteered, a woman would be putting together a puzzle with her husband. As I continued to volunteer, I joined their routine, solving nearly five puzzles in a matter of weeks.
Beyond the puzzle, though, I enjoyed this time because I was able to witness true love.
You see, only the wife lived in the memory care unit; her husband lived in another part of the building but would visit her every single day. He just loved her that much.
And she repaid him, so to speak, with her own love.
One day, as we were searching for a piece to the puzzle, the wife sneakily took out a mysterious ball of napkins. Saying his name under her breath, she handed this gift to her husband. When he unwrapped it, a chocolate chip cookie greeted him.
Of course, we were all puzzled (ha). But we later figured out what happened: at lunch, the wife intentionally saved her cookie just so she could give it to her husband later in the day.
Talk about a sweet treat.
As our bishops note, “[the elderly] can show you a whole new perspective on growing older.”
In my life, people have stereotypically assumed older people only drink prune juice and drive slowly. However, after spending even just a few hours with elders like the cute couple, we can learn aging is not necessarily boring or something to fear.
As the world around us continues to search for the fountain of youth, we should instead appreciate each stage of our lives.
Look up to the elderly. They’re a generation with a wealth of knowledge to share, and our generation might be surprised at how they can open our eyes to the life around us.
When reflecting upon the 20 years of my life, I can honestly say volunteering with the elderly has been one of the most inspiring experiences. In addition to making some new friends, I learned the true meaning of solidarity.
Ultimately, no matter how divided our world may be at times, we belong to each other: I am yours, you are mine. As such, we have a duty to take care of each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually, whether that means making guacamole for someone, going on walks, or putting puzzles together.
So, yes, I respect my elders. But, more importantly, I love them.