On Aging and Kindness
When I finished college in the mid-70s, jobs were scarce. I searched for months to find employment. Of course, the fact that I was an English major with no discernible or useful skills probably played a small role in my joblessness.
But after eons of fruitless resume-scattering, I received two job offers in the same week.
One job was as manager-trainee for a large discount chain store. The other was a clerk’s position for a nonprofit organization providing services for the elderly.
The retail job was a bit more money, and had that magical seductive word “manager” in the title. I was a college graduate after all! Summa cum laude, even. The no-discernible-skill part was immaterial (to me).
The nonprofit job was the absolute lowest rung on the nonprofit ladder. I would be typing names and addresses on service orders.
But my mother – who you know by now is the wisest person to have ever lived on this planet – said this to me:
“Being a manager in that store probably means that you are expected to be the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave at night. And they will expect you to hire kids who don’t want the job in the first place and fire adults who are already having a hard time making ends meet. But more important than that – the biggest factor on whether you will like a job is whether you will make good friends. If you work for that store, who will you talk to? Who will you have lunch with? But on the other hand, the nonprofit organization is full of well-educated people trying to make a difference in the world. You will be in a low-level position because the other employees have masters’ degrees and lots of experience. Where are you more likely to have good conversations and make lasting friends?”
Mom is a genius and I know I was blessed by God in having her for a mother.
I took the clerk’s position in the nonprofit.
Low-level is the charitable way to put it. This organization existed through a grant from Medicare. Their offices were above a liquor store (which turned out to be convenient, actually, as we would run down for a few bottles of wine on Friday nights, and spend an hour or two “unwinding”). For the first two months I worked there, I didn’t even have a desk or chair, as they were waiting for their next fiscal year allotment. I would just plop myself down at the desk of a nurse or social worker who was out visiting clients, and when they would return, I find another empty space, which sometimes meant the floor, which was okay if I was filing, but not a good idea for typing.
But anyway, it was the best career choice EVER. And not just because they paid for my MBA, which they did, and I got a raise as well as a desk and a chair eventually. No. It was my best career choice because to start out in business by learning Compassion is about the best possible way to start anything.
Our program used Medicare funds to pay for services that were not then authorized by Medicare, and I am proud to say we provided information to Medicare that paved the way to better coverage. Our nurses and social workers would assess the individual needs of our elderly clients and authorize service that were right for them, with the ultimate goal of keeping the elderly independent and in their own homes for as long as possible.
For example, we found that many people ended up in nursing homes because they could no longer go get groceries or cook meals. Bringing them Meals-On-Wheels may have been all the assistance they needed. We also authorized dental care, homemakers, medical equipment. And we were the first Medicare program to cover prescription drugs.
The services we provided made me proud to work there. And my co-workers taught me so much about kindness and respect that it made me a better person for the next forty-plus years.
The Executive Director was Joan Quinn, a geriatric nurse. She was intelligent and practical. Funny and resolute. There was no better person from whom to learn not only Compassion but how to be a good person and a good boss. If you want to learn how to work with kindness and respect, learn from a nurse.
Oh yes, I learned about business and budgets and accounting and grant-writing and record retention, and all those technical skills that go into office work. But much more important, I learned how to treat people; how to love people you barely know
Especially, I learned how to Listen. Elderly people are often isolated and lonely. They would call us, ostensibly to discuss a medical bill, but mostly just to hear another voice. Ms. Quinn taught us all to listen, to be patient no matter how busy we were. “Talk to them. Give them you full attention for a few minutes. Don’t be so quick to say goodbye,” she said.
I learned that the most important determinants of maintaining health was Connection. Our healthiest clients had family – spouses and children and grandchildren. But not everyone is so lucky. Widowed and single people thrived if they had friends. Or if they had pets. A dog or cat is someone to talk to, someone who needs you and motivates you to get up in the morning and get moving.
I also learned that taking an Interest in the outside world is integral in leading the healthiest possible life. Our social workers always asked the clients if they watched the news or read the papers.
And it did not have to be only interest in world events. We always asked about what they watched on TV. And whether it was The Price Is Right or The Waltons, I saw that having something to look forward to is crucial. I learned that television can be a lifesaver for a shut-in. A short while back I wrote that we should not be embarrassed by our tastes, that it should be okay to like what we like. This is where I learned this.
I also found that people did not all fall into one stereotype of Old Age. People keep their Individuality. And that individuality is to be respected. I can remember Ms. Quinn scolding a nurse who was pressuring an 85-year-old man to give up his unhealthy diet. “That guy lived 85 years eating fried eggs and sausage and pepperoni. Who are you to tell him it’s bad for him? You should live so long!”
One of my favorite memories is of a terrible snowstorm we had one February. Our normal Meals-On-Wheels service was suspended, but all of us who managed to get to the office spent the morning on the phone, calling every person on the meals program, to ensure that they were okay. Most were. They said they could have a sandwich or they had some leftovers that would suffice. But a few people had nothing to eat without our meals, so we made slippery dangerous trips out to those folks to bring them food. Joan Quinn’s favorite client was a woman well into her nineties, who was blind and a double amputee – who still lived by herself, and quite well, by the way. She was one of those few that had nothing to eat. Joan promised to bring her some lunch. “What would you like?” she asked. And the woman said, “You know what I haven’t had in years? Pizza. How I miss pizza.” And Joan and one of the social workers went over with a large pizza and they had a pizza party in the snowstorm with a blind old woman.
But if people do not homogenize, neither does old age instill any intrinsic nobility simply due to advanced years. Joan Quinn used to remind us that a manipulative or crabby young person will also be a manipulative crabby old person.
Happily, most people are good, and so are most old people.
And we can respect them, honor them, and practice kindness.
And in practicing kindness, some Rules can be broken, I learned.
The chef that prepared our Meals-On-Wheels was one guy who broke the rules out of generosity. Once I was promoted, I handled the administration of some of our services, including Meals. I noticed that one man was receiving double meals. I called the chef and told him that he was not authorized to provide extra meals. “That old guy is hungry,” he said. ‘I don’t care if you don’t pay me, I’m giving him extra.” I paid him.
And here is my own contribution to breaking rules.
I also handled the taxi program, which allowed our clients to take a cab to go to the doctor, or get groceries or do their banking. I phoned one man to arrange a cab to take him to the doctor, and the sweet old guy expressed his gratitude. “It’s hard not driving anymore. I used to have lunch once a week with a few friends.” I called the cab company and told them to give the man a ride to Friendly’s every Wednesday and to write on the bill that they took him to the supermarket.
Years later, by a sheer fortunate coincidence, Joan Quinn and I appeared together on a poster published by the University of Connecticut, celebrating UConn women.
Joan Quinn was being honored for her significant contributions in Geriatrics.
I got a mention because I was an executive at ESPN.
But you know, I’d rather be remembered for letting a old guy have lunch with his friends.