Jimbob's Journal
The Elders
by Jim Harris

Robert Frost called America a "Nation of nations", referring to the many different ethnic groups that make up our country. There is, however another "nation" within our borders that, although quite large, remains relatively unseen and unheard. I'm talking about the millions of people in nursing homes, geriatric centers, and assisted living facilities.They are the richest among us in wisdom and experience. They are the elders, and how we treat them is a true measure of the greatness of our society.

My own venture into their world grew out of a desire to do something meaningful with my musical skills. One of the benefits of aging is the ability to broaden one's tastes, and I have gradually learned to appreciate the beauty in many different types of music. It seemed to me that the obvious audience for my eclectic repetoire would be a group of senior citizens, so I got out the phone book and looked up nursing homes.There were far more than I expected. I started calling them, and found out that they all had activities directors who were looking for ways to entertain their residents. I got myself a partner, worked up a routine, and we took our show on the road.

We spent the next three years playing rooms ranging from five-star (happy hour every Friday afternoon) to just plain dismal. There are far too many individual stories of courage and beauty to recount here, but suffice to say that there is a wealth of human character behind those cold gray walls that would behoove any of us to experience. Not only the residents, but devoted family, staff, and volunteers are all examples of the best that people can be and do.

Imagine, if you can, your life stretching out eighty, ninety, a hundred years behind you. Think of all the family and friends come and gone, the turmoil and the changes you have seen. You have literally given it your all. You are spent and ready to find inner peace, rest at last on your laurels, and maybe bask in some praise for a job well done. Instead, you find yourself living in a building full of strangers, none of whom want to be there any more than you do. If you're lucky, you have a memento or two of your once proud life - a piece of furniture, perhaps, or a box of photographs. This was the situation that the people I played for were in, and yet they smiled and laughed and sang their hearts out. They had so much to share and no one to give it to.

I learned more in those nursing homes than I ever did in any school. We are so much more than just what we have, or what we know. If we see farther than our ancestors, it is only because we stand on their shoulders. We are history and tradition. We each in our own time and our own way carry the torch. The elders are our connection with the past, and what we take from them, we give to the future. After one of my performances, a bed-ridden woman, a holocaust survivor, beckoned me over, clasped my hand tightly, and whispered, "God bless America".

My contemporaries and I talked a lot in the sixties about peace and love and the family of man. This is a perfect opportunity to live out those words in a very personal way, a chance to close the generation gap and to let them know that we value them greatly. You don't have to play an instrument or have any special talent at all. One man I know simply rented a video once a week, bought some popcorn and gave the folks a night at the movies. Most facilities can use help with special events like Spring fairs or bake sales, but you have to take the initiative. Do it for them, do it for yourself. I guarantee you'll be glad you did, for as long as you live.

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