A Watchman, a Spy, and the Wisdom of an Elder

Spying is big these days. Bigger than looking for wisdom. But in my work with older people, I often get to do both. As Bob Atchley tells us, “ordinary sages” are all around. And this opportunity to find one came when I was asked by a daughter to find out what was bothering her father, Sam. He suffered from Alzheimer’s, was a widower who had left his home in another state for a mostly-Jewish assisted living facility near his daughter.  She asked me to take him to buy some new slippers.  Sam told me right away that he didn’t need new slippers.  What he wanted me to do was to read him an article called “FLP’S Flop with the IRS” which was about leaving your assets to family in a proper way before you die.  But after I finished reading, he agreed to go out to shop for house shoes.

As we entered Rite Aid, Sam went up to a young clerk and asked him, “Are you in the shoe business?”  The young clerk blinked his eyes but recovered quickly. “Yes sir, we have a few at the back of the store.” And he pointed the way.   At the Wellness center Sam engaged a young woman, “So you have shoes?”  “Just around the corner,” she assured him.  Rack after rack of cheap and furry foot coverings.  “These would be great if we had snow on the ground,” Sam said as he reached for a pair shaped like boots for Genghis Khan. And predictably, none of the slippers was quite right, so we went back to the assisted living for lunch.

On this “watchman” day, I joined Sam at a table for six, noticing that he especially liked a small, active woman who sang.  This morning I had seen her in the lobby singing to people who were coming in and going out.  But it wasn’t the  singing that Sam liked; he liked her because she needed help opening packages of crackers and getting lids off creamers.  Sam was very tender as he helped her and got her to stir her coffee.

The luncheon choice that day was vegetable lasagna or herb-crusted pollock.  I ordered the pollock. “What did you say?” the little woman asked me.  “Pollock, white fish” I answered. “Oh,” she told me.  “I thought you said that you wanted a Polack for lunch.”  “My husband was a Polack,” she told me, “but I am a Russian.”  She told us how she had come here at the age of seven to this place where Jews gather from all over the world. “I had a big family, two brothers and five sisters.”

Here my client stopped her and said, “That interests me.  You have a big family, and they can live with you until they grow up, and then they are booted out.”  Sam spoke with passion. My mind stopped as the conversation moved on.  Did Sam feel that he had been booted out of the family into a nursing home?

Two subjects interested Sam.  Both had to do with family: the unfairness of  getting booted out of the family.   And worry about his assets. (Suddenly I remembered my own grandmother telling me that her boys just wanted to get her money and put her in an old folk’s home, which wasn’t true but a fear none the less.)

Sam had some fears and feelings that needed processing, not easy if you have dementia. How could his worry be expressed and received?  But this little singing woman did receive Sam’s offering of his concern.

“No!” she said.  “When people grow and it is time to move on, it’s okay for them to go.”


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Ann Cason

Ann Cason,
Geriatric Consultant

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