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
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.