Guest Essay by Paul Downey, President/CEO, Serving Seniors (San Diego, CA)
A perk of my job is that I get to meet interesting people who have earned their wisdom through living life. I enjoy walking through Serving Seniors’ facilities, chatting with some of the 2,200 “historians” who come through our doors each day.
They’re happy to share stories of good times and reminisce about the things that put wrinkles in their faces. More than a few have told me, often with an accompanying chuckle, that too many good times can cause more wrinkles than bad times. It must be all the smiling.
I am often asked what ignited my passion to become an advocate for seniors. My answer always begins with the story of a Monday morning in the summer of 1995, only three months after I was hired as president/CEO of Serving Seniors.
My assistant Emma popped her head into my office and said there were three seniors who wanted to see me about an urgent matter. Three familiar faces – Helen, Ben and Marvel – came in and shared the sad news that two of the Center’s “regulars” had died over the weekend. Neither had family and their remains were to be cremated by the county because they had no money.
“Would the Center be willing to hold a memorial service,” asked Helen. “It would allow their friends to say goodbye.”
Without hesitation I said “Of course” and asked if they knew the seniors’ religions so that I could arrange for the proper clergy to officiate.
Ben jumped in and said, “We want you to do the memorial.”
I quickly demurred, politely explaining that I was not a minister but would be happy to get one. Marvel then gripped both of my wrists and, in a voice that broached no argument, said that there was nothing more important than having someone who knew the seniors conduct the service.
“None of us are afraid of dying, we’re afraid nobody will notice,” she said.
The lightning bolt that struck just about catapulted me from my chair. The possibility that someone could die, and it not be noticed, had never crossed my mind. But looking at the three faces across my desk told me that their fear was real. Nobody caring was worse than death.
I did the memorial service for the two seniors and have done dozens of others since, including Marvel’s a few years later. But the lesson of “nobody caring” has become part of my DNA and shapes everything that I do as an advocate for seniors. It is the guiding philosophy of Serving Seniors’ staff and volunteers: We notice, we care and we do everything in our power to positively impact the lives of seniors.
Judgment is left to a higher pay grade. It doesn’t matter if they are poor, homeless, made some mistakes or even lived on the fringes of society. All seniors are welcome at Serving Seniors. We treat each senior with dignity and provide a cocoon of services that keeps them healthy, independent and contributing members of the community.
You can help as well. Many seniors feel they are invisible and that people simply don’t notice them. Make a point to offer a greeting as you pass on the sidewalk. Strike up a conversation while waiting in line at the grocery store. Remember to call your mother (regularly). And check on elderly neighbors to see if there is anything you can do to help.
You might be surprised to find out that you enjoy it. These living historians have many lessons to teach and, if you ask really nicely, might just share stories about a couple of their wrinkles.