4 Timeless Lessons from Time Spent with an Elderly Friend

Read about the benefits this married couple discovered by spending time with the elderly.
My husband, Dan, and I first met Louise in 2012, when a friend asked us if we’d be willing to take an elderly widow on her weekly shopping trips. Considering that we went to the grocery store anyway, we said yes. Thus began one of the most enriching relationships we’ve ever experienced — a friendship that found us by Louise’s side when her earthly life ended in 2017.

First, a little background. Louise was in her upper 80s when we met; we were in our upper 20s. She had buried her beloved husband, Francis, a few years earlier, and now lived with her cat, Lucky, in the home she and Francis had shared for decades. We were newly married, living in an apartment a few minutes’ drive from Louise. Louise was part of the aptly-named Greatest Generation, having moved in the 1940s from her childhood home in Manhattan to Washington, D.C., in order to work at the Pentagon during the war, a job she kept until retirement. She had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and so much more. Compared to her, our lives felt so unlived!

It may sound cliché, but it’s absolutely true: we learned so much from our friendship with Louise.

We learned how beautiful it is when an act of charity blossoms into genuine friendship.

At first, we were happy to help Louise out with her weekly shopping, because we knew she was in need: she had no driver’s license or reliable transportation, as well as failing eyesight. We felt pleased at having an ongoing work of charity to do together as a couple. But over time, we came to know Louise not as “elderly widow in need” but as everything else she was: a feisty lady who never fully lost her New York City roots or accent, a cat-lover, horse track aficionado, giver-of-nicknames (mine was “Chief”; Dan’s was “Tiger”), and so much more.

In short, Louise let us into her life, and we let her into ours. We shared meals together and even some holidays, celebrated birthdays together (including Louise’s 93rd!) and we visited in each other’s homes. We even spent one memorable afternoon at the racetrack she and Francis used to frequent, which was a new experience for us! She simply became part of our lives. As we grew in friendship, our solidarity with her became personal, organic, and mutual — charity lived in the midst of our lives, in relationship.

We learned the meaningfulness of helping one person.

Looked at from a certain perspective, the amount of time we spent with Louise wasn’t very “efficient.” We could have used the same amount of time to help scores of other people through different ministries. There’s nothing “effective” or outwardly measurable about simply spending time with a person, swapping stories, eating pie, and so on. But the bottom line isn’t always the most important thing.

The time we spent with Louise reminded us of how Jesus did his ministry: at times, He spoke to hundreds, yes, but more often, He poured His life and energy into a handful of disciples and even fewer intimate friends (like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha). In a world where charity is sometimes about getting the biggest bang for your buck, or the best “outcome” for your time invested, there’s something refreshing about encounters with others that aren’t calculable but still undeniably meaningful.

We learned what it means to be family for each other.

Louise was a widow, without any children, and was either geographically distant or estranged from her remaining family members. In other words, she was very much alone. We, on the other hand, while well-connected with local friends, were living apart from our families and had no children. Being with Louise gave us a chance to love someone like family, and in some ways, she became like a local grandma to us.

As with any family relationship, loving and serving Louise was not always convenient or immediately pleasurable. But also like family, knowing that we were connected to each other, and that we relied each other, was so gratifying. We are all meant for community, to look out for each other, and Louise gave us a way to live that out.

We learned what a great privilege and joy it is to accompany the elderly.

Louise was already in her twilight years when we met her. At times, we thought how fun it would have been to know this woman with such a big personality earlier in her life, as peers. But while we didn’t get that opportunity, we did get the amazing gift of hearing a lifetime’s worth of her stories and wisdom — and of walking alongside someone as they drew nearer to the end of life.

So often we socialize and work with mainly those of our own age or younger; being with the elderly is a wonderful gift. Louise’s life as a whole gave us perspective for whatever we happened to be going through. Her willingness to be dependent on us in certain ways, and to allow us to help her, was a great witness to the fact that we all need each other.

A few years after we met, it became clear that the end was near. By that point, Louise had moved to a nearby nursing home. For several weeks, we and other parish friends spent much time with her and by her bedside. These were such special moments, but heavy with emotion, too. I have never been so close to the dying process, and it was such a privilege to be by her side, praying, talking about memories we had together, and simply being together, knowing that the mysterious phenomenon of death was approaching — something beyond our control but that will happen to all of us.

We got a call around 3 a.m. on March 23, 2017, telling us that Louise had breathed her last. Her funeral was held on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. A few weeks later, our daughter was born: Zelie-Louise, named for French saints (the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux), and for our friend Louise. While the elderly Louise never got to meet the baby partially named for her, we hope at some level they have a connection, and we wouldn’t be sad at all to see some of our dear friend in our sweet daughter.

Grotto quote graphic about spending time with the elderly: "In a world where charity is sometimes about getting the best 'outcome' for your time invested, there's something refreshing about encounters with others that aren't calculable but still undeniably meaningful."

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