Kindness Matters

Carol A. Hand

“Honour the Aged; in honouring them you honour life and wisdom” (Basil Johnston, 1976, p. 93)

I remember Clara. I was just a young teenager when we first met. At the time, I lived with my family on the upper floor of a three-story brick building, once a fancy upscale home in a small county seat in northwestern Pennsylvania. By the time my family moved there, it had been turned into a nursing home with 20 elders who needed varying degrees of 24 hour care. My mother purchased the business and assumed the role of administrator. (Thanks to the generosity of a wealthy resort owner on the Ojibwe reservation where my mother was born and raised, my mother was able to attend Loyola University and received her degree as a registered nurse.) I was twelve when we moved and not happy about leaving all of my friends in a more cosmopolitan setting with a far better educational system.

Spending time with elders was far more enjoyable than handing out with my new peers, so my mother gave me a “volunteer” job as a nurses’ aide. Clara arrived a short time later. She was a tall, thin, lovely woman with wavy silver hair. I can still remember her sitting in the rocking chair in the corner room that she shared with two other elders on the second floor, right below our upstairs apartment. Neither of her roommates was mobile or able to speak. Clara could speak, but she seemed to prefer to scream instead, nonstop, unless someone with a calming presence was with her. She taught me how to be that presence, how to use body language, facial expressions, and my voice to help her feel more at peace.

I don’t know much about her life before she moved to the nursing home. I was told that she had once been a gifted and beloved teacher. One winter day, she slipped on an icy sidewalk and the head injury she sustained left her as she was when we met, unable to care for herself or communicate with others. Although she couldn’t pay the full cost of her care, and Medicaid and Medicare didn’t yet exist, my mother agreed to give her a room at whatever price she could afford. There were no other humane options for someone with her level of needs.

antique rocking chair

Photo Credit: Antique Rocking Chair

As two outcasts, we found a sense of peace and belonging in each other’s company. The first thing I did when I got home from school many days was to stop by to visit Clara. When I appeared in her doorway, she would often be seated in her rocker, screaming. She would stop screaming as I said hello. Then she would smile and reach out her arms to welcome me. The worries and insults of my day would vanish as we sat together and I told her stories in my gentle lilting musical voice. She helped me discover that voice, that compassion, and that depth. It was her kind and accepting presence that helped me survive tumultuous teenage years. My grandmother’s often repeated messages that I was ugly, my father’s escalating physical and emotional abuse, my homogenous peers with whom I had little in common added to the angst of transformative years.

Spending time with Clara became my sanctuary. I was powerless to prevent her worsening physical health, and finally, my mother was forced to send her to a facility that could provide the level of care Clara needed. I realize now that don’t know how she fared in her new home, or if she lived long after her move. I do know her absence left me adrift for a while.

I hope she was treated with kindness and respect in her last moments. Yet, I have witnessed too many institutions where people have not been treated with kindness. It’s odd to realize how powerful the underlying belief has continued to be in the dominant Euro-American culture that people are only worthy of respect if they contribute something that is viewed as worthwhile from a narrow economic perspective. Self-reliance and the Protestant work ethic…

Many years after my peaceful days with Clara, I returned to the university to finish a social work degree that I hoped would enable me to develop state policies in partnership with elders – policies that were founded on the recognition of their dignity. Of course I encountered faculty examples of what I didn’t want to become when I grew up. “Older people are like children,” said one faculty member interrupting my class presentation. “I don’t know why you want to study elder abuse policy in this class. Older people are so useless and troublesome to deal with. Their abuse is understandable,” said another, interrupting yet another presentation. But I was fortunate to have other faculty who taught me important lessons about the plasticity of brain development and adaption, the wisdom factor, and ecosystems theory. I learned that we’re never too old to keep learning and contributing. And the challenges that make living independently difficult come largely from our socially constructed environment and institutions. When an elder who has lived in a two-story house for decades develops arthritis in her knees and can no longer climb stairs, her ability to live independently is threatened because of how we build houses, cabinets, and bathrooms. It’s because of where we locate stores and service agencies, how we provide (or fail to provide) affordable transportation, the proximity to family and informal support, and the income people have once they retire.

tools of the trade caren caraway

Photo Credit: Tools of the Trade (by Artist Caren Caraway)

Instead of building housing and communities that support aging in place, we force people to move to “handicapped accessible buildings,” often huge institutional looking structures. In smaller communities, homes like the one I spent my teenage years in are retrofitted as housing for older people. When I worked as the state aging network supervisor, one of the areas I focused on was housing. I took the time to travel the state with the state staff who licensed facilities that received state funding – “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” as the inspectors dubbed the wide variety of facilities we visited. I also had the opportunity to be part of a team of ten state professionals in a week-long program that applied a 50-category assessment tool to evaluate the degree to which social service agencies, like residential facilities for elders, were founded on the recognition of dignity. Imagine your first impression when the administrator of the participating facility greeted the team with the following introduction. “Let’s meet in the dining room for our orientation.” We all followed her lead. “The table is round, you see. Old people like to sit in circles. You know, the people here are all waiting to die. We do our best to keep them comfortable in the meantime.” Sometimes, I have the wisdom to be patient. I merely listened and observed. I knew there would be time to meet with the elders who lived there later, and time to talk privately with the rest of the team.

The experience turned out to be valuable, but heartbreaking. Elders from 60 to 95 were categorized as “waiting to die” – waiting with untreated injuries, hearing loss, and serious depression, sitting alone in their rooms. They clutched at my hands begging me to stay after we spoke, even though the rest of the team was waiting somewhat impatiently. The experience actually taught me about the many ways we fail to acknowledge dignity. I remember the many facilities I visited with names like “Shady Acres,” the long drive to the outskirts of town with a road sign signaling what we would find, DEAD END. As we entered facilities, we sometimes found elders who appeared to be overly medicated parked on couches and wheelchairs facing the blaring TV. neighborhood apartment bldg

Photo Credit: Elder’s Building – Spring 2012

How I wish I could say that things have improved over the years since those days. I’m sad to say they have not. In my visits to friends in the apartment complex across the street, I am reminded of the many ways elders may be safely housed without being accorded respect or opportunities to share their wisdom of develop new skills. I voiced some of my observations in recent comments to an earlier post.

To Rowena at Beyond the Flow, I replied – Recently, I have been observing the many ways in which everyday actions that are based on lack of compassion affect people’s lives. Actions that may appear insignificant on the surface have profound consequences for the quality of life of many people through ripple effects. The elders’ apartment complex across the street is an example. Elders who love to garden are denied access to garden plots because those in charge of maintenance prefer easy-to-mow lawns. Denying this simple request has profound consequences on the health and well-being of residents on many levels. Many residents have accepted this limitation after voicing their desires repeatedly and simply adjusted their lives to give up something they love, something that feeds their spirits and brings beauty into the world. They could join together and become “guerilla gardeners.” I would welcome the chance to help them dig up the lawn at night and help them build gardens that are high enough to accommodate varying degrees of limited mobility. But that is their decision…

To Debra at My Land Restoration Project, my reply was – It’s so easy to cultivate fear and shame, to destroy confidence and hope, and so challenging to rekindle a sense of real possibilities. In fact, it’s how I met my neighbors across the street. When I moved to this neighborhood a little over three years ago, the yard was filled with piles of tree limbs and brush. I began the long process of bringing in soil and compost, and building gardens. It was difficult manual labor and I wondered if it made any difference at all to anyone else. Then, this past year, two of the women who live in the elder’s high rise stopped to talk when I was working in the front yard. Now we meet for monthly tea and share stories. Neither one is able to have one of the coveted garden plots in the small space allotted for residents, so they come and sit with me sometimes when I’m working, sharing stories about the gardens they’ve had and advising me on what to plant. One is eagerly waiting for the tulips and daffodils I planted this fall as she watched. (The garden is too low for someone who needs a cane to walk because of knee problems.) It’s a small thing, but it gives me hope and allows my neighbors to spend time in a place they see as a sanctuary. But ever a rebel who automatically wants to challenge oppression, I hope they choose to organize creative resistance and create a midnight garden by digging up the lawn. I can bring my shovel and do the heavy work to help…

My neighbors have raised children, survived abuse and many losses, and they’ve become adeptly ingenious at living on less than poverty incomes. I have learned so much from them and eagerly anticipate our monthly “Tea for Three” discussions. I wish more residents would join us, but my life is blessed by the presence of these two lovely women. I wish the administrators of the facility where they live would treat my friends and all of the residents with the respect they deserve – the “dignity of risk” and the “right to folly” – “respecting each individual’s autonomy and self-determination (or “dignity”) to make choices for himself or herself.” It was something my mother made possible for Clara as long as possible.

Chi miigwetch, dear Clara, for teaching me some of the most valuable lessons I learned in my life – the gifts of kindness and compassion. bird-feather-13486506267nW

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Work Cited: Basil Johnston (1976) Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
This entry was posted in Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to Kindness Matters

  1. smilecalm says:

    touching path & history of caring, Carol!
    may elders again be seen
    as the luminescent treasures they are 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. tubularsock says:

    Wow. Excellent post …….. Tubularsock could go off on the information you have provided at least as loud as Clara if not more so. But Tubularsock will contain himself. And the “waiting to die” and the “Old people like to sit in circles” damn near threw Tubularsock over the fucking edge. Tubularsock does admit that he started to load his AK-47 but calmed himself with only two hits of Afghan-hash ….. ahh. Life is good.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. M E Cheshier says:

    Very wise words.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The elders denied the chance to garden reminded of a retired schoolteacher. After retiring, she worked her garden every summer, with her kneepads in place, until finally passing at over age 100.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. D says:

    Very few take time to notice and your post was a testament that there are like you that really care.
    I also would love to see one day that the elderly and other marginalized members of the society are given their voice to say what they want and are given opportunities to get it and not only seen as burden, after all without them we are not here either.
    Lovely post full of ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. susanissima says:

    Beautifully, compassionately composed. The world needs more people like you, Carol, who are willing to write about our vital, often neglected elders. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. nicciattfield says:

    Just beautiful, Carol. I feel so warm, reading this early on a Monday morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. schuttzie says:

    Really lovely post, Carol. It is very touching and very true. How can we deny human beings the gift of connecting with mother earth and the healing properties to our minds, spirits, and bodies? Yes, the elderly are denied dignity and it is heartbreaking. My daughter once wanted to work in an elderly home but I think it may have been too much for her. It takes a special person to have the compassion, patience and love to try to understand what has been taken away from them and to try to give back to them in some way. I can see that you are that special person, Carol, many blessings to you in your work~

    Barbara

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind and lovely words, Barbara! Working in nursing homes can be a heartbreaking experience. Most staff do the best they can in challenging contexts – heavy work with low status and low pay. And we’re socialized with few skills for creating supportive environments that allow people the freedom to take risks, to learn, and to feel that they can contribute to their own care and others in meaningful ways. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with a mother who had those skills and the chance to learn from elders like Clara.

      I send my best wishes to you ❤

      Like

  9. Hi Carol,
    I found your post both moving and compassionate. I too was taught by both my parents to take care of and love our elders. My aunts, uncles, cousins and I took turns on my weekends to care for my grandmother and my handicapped Aunt….
    My father helped and cared for his father, who was in much bettter health and selfsufficient up until his death. We visited him every other weekend.

    This discussion is a hot topic in Sweden. Sweden use to be at the forefront of elderly care. It has not been of late that how far the mighty have fallen.I am ashamed of the horror stories that our media has brought to the publics attention. I personally believe that criminal charges should be filed in some of those circumstances. Austerity measures have destroyed all the headway that was made in the quality of care that the elderly received. This last election this subject was hot topic. Passions have run high on political decision that are made overriding medical decisions….I hope and pray that our new coallition government will reinstate the quality of care that our elderly once could count on in their golden years.
    Honey

    Liked by 2 people

    • I so appreciate your kind words, Honey, and your discussion of changing views in Sweden! The contrasts of how elders were viewed and treated in the past and how they are treated in this era of corporate-imposed austerity is alarming. I have always viewed Sweden as a model for humane policies and it’s truly disheartening to hear that this has been changing. I hope Sweden’s new government can reverse this mean-spirited course, but I worry that people’s fears about terrorists (Muslims) are being whipped up internationally by the media to deflect attention away from growing corporate control over every aspect of our lives. A view that only values power and profit, not people. Yet it makes me hopeful to know that there are compassionate people like you around the world who are doing what they can to make the world a kinder place.

      Like

      • Hi Carol,
        We had the moderate party/Alliance who were in were in power here. The former prime minister idolized Former President Bill Clinton and he even said that he ran his campaign after Clintons model. I did not like him from that point on. He worked closely with the USA’s government.

        In my humble opinion, The Moderate/Alliance government is like the Republican party in the states and the Swedish Democratic party (facist party) is similiar to the Tea party in the states.

        There are differences from the Tea party. The Swedish Democratic party has a lot of convicted criminals and Nazis’s in this party. They are anti refugees and immigrants.

        Policies were made that have seriously damaged our universial medical care, schools and educational sytem, public services and much more. Then they wanted to sell off state owned hospitals, utility companies….They sold part of the utility company for a fraction of it market value…

        Sweden had the rating of the best country in the world to live in for years. That Sweden took the best care of it’s citizens. Sweden proudly took care of all of it’s citizens. Many people around the world have used us as an example how to run a government and treat it’s people.

        Our former government has tried to tell it’s people that our finance policies are the best in the EU and We are more financially sound than any other EU country. We have fewer jobs, we have homeless, 7 out of 10 retired elderly can not survive on their pensions, …We have a rise in hate crimes against muslims, jews..We have a rise of violence against woman. A rise of excessive police violence. The UN Counsel just adressed this in the media.

        The UN has lost crediability with me. The UN has taken no inquiry or steps against the US killing, abducting people, torturing them and holding them with out due process. Bombing other countries citizens with out delcaring war (pakistan)… They have taken no action over excess force by police against blacks in Ferguson Missouri…across The USA.

        Sweden the country had a great universial healthcare system, social system. We took care of our people. Sweden takes more refugees that any other country in the EU. Our last election was a loud voice from it’s citizens saying we do not like where our country is going. Our media has brought to light it’s flaws. When muslim woman were attacked for wearing a head shawl, woman all over the country wore scarves on their heads to protest the treatment of these woman. I have faith in the Swedish people and that we are working to fix things here.

        I agree with you that certain media campaign to instill fear in Europe for Terrorist (muslims). I have seen that work in the US fear and hate have deflected peoples attention from corporate control. That is why discussing these issues and finding solutions can create change the world needs.
        Honey

        Like

  10. Discovering Mary says:

    Beautiful post, Carol. I have heard that kindness is the highest form of wisdom. I love your story about Clara – you brought her peace. What a perfect gift!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. desilef says:

    This was such painful reading. It’s one thing to know that our elders are treated in such awful ways in too many “facilities,” but it’s shattering to know it’s not just a matter of being under-resourced and that people who’d like to do the right thing are too overwhelmed to do it. The quotes and the attitudes are chilling. These abuses don’t just happen. They are built into the system.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I appreciate the important insights you added, Diane. Ageism (and ableism) is interwoven into all of the institutions in cultures that are based on superficial values of economic productivity. (It’s true that in the past, those same cultures valued those elders who held property and wealth, not because of their humanity, but because of the material things they owned.) Although we like to believe as a humane society we support the “worthy poor” who are not required to work, those who are without sufficient financial resources or family to provide care are seen as a burden. And the state (and corporate) systems we’ve created to provide services for elders and people with disabilities are literally built on the backs of poor women who provide the bulk of the care for meager salaries and, in the case of for-profit agencies, often without any fringe benefits.

      As a society, we devalue those who need help, as well as those who provide the help. While we have national campaigns to pay fast-food workers and Walmart employees living wages, we fail to mention workers who provide necessary services for people – teachers, child daycare staff, and those who provide care for elders and people with disabilities. Yet, despite the lack of status and pay for these jobs, there are many people who provide quality, compassionate care…

      Like

  12. Gator Woman says:

    Thank you for speaking for them Carol.
    Too many are used up, and forgotten, tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper.
    My days with them are the glue that holds me together now.
    Know that I will never forget any of you…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Here in New Plymouth, elders are the mainstay of our Green Party branch – as so many young people have left the area due to the absence of jobs. We lost our 99 year old member last year. At present, our oldest member is 86, though we have two just over 80 who participate regularly in protest marches.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Carol, “Guerilla gardeners”? I could get into that! I’ve personally taken up the whole of a smallish yard with just a digging fork and a ratty old bread knife … so all right, it took a few summers. And recently I’ve had the disheartening task of ‘down-sizing’ my mother’s planting beds, now she can no longer cut her own grass, or weed the flowers herself. Sneaking in and liberating some oppressed topsoil sounds like way more fun! But I’m sure spending time with you will also help your neighbors — just reading your essays gives me a determination and tranquility boost. Thank you for helping me step back from my impatient tendencies now and then. – Linda

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda, I l always love your comments about your experiences. I’m sorry to hear that your mother can’t tend her gardens now. The woman I bought my house from three years ago was 91 and had at one time been an avid gardener. In the process of trying to reclaim the yard, I’ve learned what happens to once-tended gardens if they are neglected for years. It’s very wise for you to help you mother downsize the work. But here’s to turning lawns into easy-care gardens…

      And thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your incisive analyses of current events. 🙂

      Like

  15. Ruth says:

    How wonderful that you had Clara to support you and teach you at such a critical time. I grieve for so many who have not had the beneficial influence of elders in their lives because our culture conspires to keep us isolated.

    It is not just that we are cruel and heartless to old people. It is that in our folly and arrogance we continue to orphan ourselves. We deprive ourselves of eldering. We don’t even understand our loss enough to pause and grieve it. For we have gone generations now without this. And without it, we will not find our way.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. mandy smith says:

    This post evoked so many feelings, Carol, it’s taken me a while to respond. From early childhood, I too, preferred older people to my peers. Possibly I was hoping for the adult nurturing I so needed, but I had a few, like Clara, who had a need also for caring, and their peers couldn’t provide that. Like magnets, people are drawn to what they need. I cried reading about you and Clara. The calm you brought to the screaming her, and the feeling of true acceptance she provided you, along with finding your voice. When my friend died last year, socked away in a dark room in a nursing home–the only free place Hospice could provide–I saw first hand the neglect; people left sitting in wheelchairs with trays of cold breakfast though it was afternoon, people not bathed. The plight of the elderly is heartbreaking. Thank you for bringing this to our attention again in your beautiful story-telling way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your lovely comments, Mandy, and for sharing a story that brought tears to my eyes. The way we treat people we don’t value because of age (both young and old), ability, or ancestry is heart-breaking. And yet, your work and the work of so many others gives me hope. Thank you for being an inspiration.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. lbeth1950 says:

    It is a shame to cast people aside because they become inconvenient.

    Liked by 1 person

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  19. Jeff Nguyen says:

    I’ve worked with students and adults with intellectual disabilities. These were some of the most humbling experiences in my working life. I went in thinking, “Gee, Jeff, you’re going to teach them so much,” and learning from them how to accept myself and others for who they are and not who we want them to be.

    Another beautiful post, Carol.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff, these are such important insights, and so eloquently said – “I went in thinking … you’re going to teach them so much,” and learning from them how to accept myself and others for who they are and not who we want them to be.” Thank you for sharing your wisdom, dear friend.

      Like

  20. Reblogged this on A Call to Witness and commented:
    Dignity in Aging. Honor Your Elders for one day God willing you will be one!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: Privilege Comes with Such a Heavy Cost | Voices from the Margins

  22. What a lovely post. If we’re fortunate to live long enough we will all be elderly one day. You made Clara happy, and that’s what we all hope for in old age; someone around to make us happy.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Bernadette says:

    Carol, This is a very thoughtfully written post. Unfortunately, it is all too true that the old and the young have no voice in their world. Our planet is still ruled still upon the economy of what you can bring to the table in the form of the dollar. I don’t know what the answer is and the older I get the more disheartened I get until I read something like what you posted this morning and I am reminded that there are people of conscious in the world whose lives are led by heart and they will change the world just by their presence in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Bernadette, your crucial insights are so elegantly described. Thank you for sharing these, and for your kind and generous comments.

    Like

  25. joanneeddy says:

    Dear Carol, Thank for your insight and your story about Clara. I, too, have been a social worker..though not working in gerontology. I had the most wonderful relationship with a housekeeper we had when I was a child. A retired (and poor) teacher, Miss Hassett, though not in physical distress, was my Clara. I learned so much from her…and loved her dearly. Thank you for the reminder! Joanne

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Clive says:

    A wonderful piece of writing. I’ll be back for more 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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