A Place for Mom is pleased to announce the winners of our fifth annual Senior Care Scholarship. We received over 800 entries from students describing the most important life lesson that they learned from a senior and how they will use that lesson in their future career.
Choosing just five of the 800 essays was a difficult task but after much deliberation our judges picked the following students as the five winners of the 2017 A Place for Mom Senior Care Scholarship:
Thank you to all of the students who entered, we were touched by your thoughtful heartfelt essays on seniors in your life; we wish you the best of luck in your future!
There was a time once when the elders were respected and given a place of value. It is sad that in this culture, beauty and youth have replaced that spot. The fact that one becomes frail and in need of care when one ages, does not mean that there is no worth in that individual.
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As I sit here writing this essay, a sense of warmth overcomes me, thinking about my grandfather who is turning eighty-five years old today. He has had a life of adventure, challenges and successes. Yet he also experienced pain, imprisonment and had to overcome many obstacles to get where he is. Born in Cuba a country plagued by communism, he experienced the turn over when the Castro rebels fought and overtook the government. The changes implemented when Castro took power was the reason why he was imprisoned. As a college professor, he boldly and bravely stood against some of the changes. That placed him immediately in the opposition to the new government. My grandfather has told me stories of where military guards came often to his place of employment to intimidate him into silence. Many times, they took him and kept him for days. He was beaten and mistreated while under their custody, and consequently served three prison sentences. Though he endured the mistreatment he still does not regret standing up for his beliefs. He believes in individual freedoms, religious freedom and landowner rights. These were all stripped away once communism took full control of Cuba. He believes there are some things worth taking a chance for. To stand against adversity to defend yourself, your people, your family and your country is difficult but necessary. His strength and understanding of his purpose in life makes me desire to be more like him.
I can sit and listen to his stories for hours. Of course, there is also my grandmother who had to raise five children alone when her husband was serving his prison sentences. She did not have the grocery stores around the corner that those of us in America are used to having. She did not have the commodities we have become accustomed to. She had to use real cloth diapers and wash them by hand. All the meals prepared, were prepared from scratch. As I listen to her share what her days entailed, I can see how difficult her life had been. Yet, there is no bitterness in her. On the contrary, she enthusiastically shares the joys of how she overcame them.
As a nurse, I will encounter many different type of people. Their background, their culture and certainly their life experiences will all be different. I believe as a nurse: one should step aside and try to understand the individual patient one is caring for. Try to see life through their eyes. What culture differences does this individual have? What must one avoid doing and what things should one learn to do? This is essential is allowing the patient to feel that they are safe and thus, can concentrate on getting well. That is one of the things I enjoy learning, the differences in people and the many things that make us unique. This will allow a person in my care to believe in me and trust that I will do my best to help them in their healing process.
As I go about my life and in my duties as a nurse, I will always look at an elderly person and wonder. Wonder about what conquests can he or she name as his or her own? What struggles did he or she suffer? What careers did he or she practice? Was he or she an artist of some kind? There are victories to be shared and regrets that plague their very soul. I will be a nurse first, but will forever hope for the opportunity to sit by their bedside, and hear them tell their story. With this, their accomplishments will live on.
The best classroom I have ever had was very close to the feet of an older adult. It was at the bedside of an older adult who was deaf-blind with an intellectual disability and died following a prolonged period of serious illness. I was only a year into my tenure as a social worker for a nonprofit agency supporting adults, many of who were seniors, when she died. But the events of that day — and those that came before and after her death — changed the course of my career.
Adele had lived in an institution for much of her life, and she transitioned to a group home as there became awareness in the sociopolitical culture that large congregate care setting were inappropriate and often harmful places for people with disabilities to spend their lives. Her life in the community was robust; she cross-stitched, cared for her roommates, and rarely missed a day of work even well past the average age of retirement. In the last year of life, Adele became increasingly fatigued, and it was later determined that she had a life-limiting illness that would ultimately culminate in an extended stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) before her death.
Even in the ICU, she enjoyed the companionship of her extended family, staff members who had become like family and housemates who loved and adored her. I consider myself lucky to be counted among the people who spent time with her during the last year of life. Adele taught me how to advocate for someone who lacked the capacity to advocate for herself due to her present condition and also her pre-existing disabilities. Her life with serious illness and ultimately her death taught me how to ask the right questions of healthcare professionals; how to find the best specialists and care settings in spite of persistent barriers; and how to break difficult news to people who loved her. The one most important lesson I learned was the limitless capacity of any person to help another to die better.
These are lessons I have paid forward to other older adults I have supported as a Masters-level social worker. These are lessons I have shared with the disability professionals I train and social work students I teach. These are also lessons that have informed the issues I study and the research questions I now ask as a PhD student at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. My proposed dissertation, A Retrospective Study of the Last year of Life for People with Intellectual Disabilities in Community Residence, is very much because of and in honor of my experiences with Adele. Upon conferral of my PhD in May 2018, it is my intention to pursue a research and teaching career as a gerontologist exploring the intersection of aging, end-of-life, and disability.
I am most grateful to A Place for Mom for the opportunity to share the story of this inspirational older adult. The chance to simply speak her name and the lessons she taught me is a privilege. I humbly ask that the award committee accept this essay, scholarship award agreement, and online student information form in consideration for the 2017 Senior Care Scholarship.
Most individuals make the most of the hand they are dealt. They adapt to hardship, determined to overcome barriers, but are nonetheless hardened by challenge. In my late teenage years, as I really started to get to know Joan on a more personal level, I presumed she might be the same. How wrong I was.
I’d first met Joan when she was a volunteer in my elementary school: she was bubbly, full of energy, and eager to enrich my curious young mind with thoughtful discourse and stimulating academic exercises. She reinforced my advanced academic behavior, despite the fact that my zest for learning was frequently mocked by peers, and facilitated the development of my true passion for reading and writing. Unbeknownst to me, Joan was in her late 60s at the time. Since I had always preferred spending time and engaging in conversation with adults versus peers, I never really gave much thought to her chronological maturity. She was simply a person with whom I “had a connection,” a person who understood me as a student and individual.
Joan and I stayed in touch regularly, and when I was in high school, we started to meet for coffee a few times each year. By this time, Joan was in her late 70s. We had extremely thought-provoking conversations, sometimes spending more than three hours together and losing all sense of time. I told her about my career goals and interests, my plans for college, and my thoughts about the world. She slowly revealed to me more about her life experiences, as a successful college graduate, surrounded by family difficulties but grateful to have extended family members who were willing to support her childhood and scholastic achievement.
Our conversations while I was in college and after I graduated were similar but increasingly more serious: she slowly revealed more to me about her heart-wrenching divorce and the pervasive aloneness that she had successfully kept at bay for more than 30 years. She listened carefully to my discourse about hospice, disparities in healthcare access for rural and underserved older adults, and my passion for working with older adults as a career. She constantly challenged my beliefs and thoughts about the human capacity for overcoming difficulties.
When I decided to apply to graduate school to earn my PhD in Clinical Geropsychology, Joan was just as proud as any member of my family. She shared with me some of her own experiences with mental health issues and transferred a true sense of empathy for individuals who constantly suffer from psychological difficulties. It was at this time when I finally realized that Joan had completely transcended the default mode of human nature for more than eight decades: she had slowly but surely risen above extreme life difficulty and hardship, free of any resentment, not only to find her own purpose in the world but also to help me find mine. It was also at this time when I realized it was because of Joan that I was simultaneously intrigued, inspired, and enriched by older adults, because, in fact, I had never thought of them as “older” adults: I had simply thought of them as particularly knowledgeable people who could contribute something special to my life and to the world.
Joan is now in her mid 80s, and although my pursuit of graduate school has resulted in a distance of over 1,000 miles between us, we still email regularly. When we last saw each other, she did not feel quite as strong as she once was, yet her encouragement and support for all aspects of my life were unwavering, and her ability to challenge my mind was hardly disturbed. Among all of the older adults I have befriended, cherished, and loved in my lifetime, it is Joan who I have welcomed into my “chosen family” and whose zest for life, support, and resilience will continue to inspire my career as a geropsychologist for the rest of my life.
Every year after I turned six, I remember wishing for only one thing I remember using up all my birthday wishes for it and my Christmas letters were filled with the same wish: to be able to go to Mexico and see my Grandpa during Christmas break. It was a one week trip once a year filled with adventures. The event didn’t matter, what mattered to me was being able to spend time with my hero, my Papa Lalo. He’d always share stories about his struggles throughout his life, his amusing anecdotes made me laugh until my stomach hurt, and his memories were magical to me because it took us back in time. His stories were always filled with hard work, bravery, and confidence in the future. He told me how education was important, but he had to sacrifice his education to be able to survive He shared how at the age of six he had to become a fieldworker to help his mom afford food for him and his 10 siblings. I wanted to be just like him, I wanted to wear flannels, cowboy boots, sombreros, tend to the cows, ride horses, and be as hardworking as him. I asked him to teach me how to be like him and he laughed his deep raspy laugh and said I already had it in me, but he’d teach me how to ride a horse.
On my last trip to Mexico, my grandpa woke me up before the sunrise and told me to put my cowboy boots on and meet him outside when I was ready. When I walked outside I saw him saddling up the horses he had been teaching me how to ride for the past few years, I asked him where we were going and he said to trust him, so I did. We started heading towards the mountains, and I have never been more scared than trying to maneuver a horse in the dark on a trail I had never been on. I cried out to my Papa Lalo begging him to take us back home, but he calmly stated you can do this, don’t doubt yourself. I remember thinking I would never make it to the top. But nevertheless, I persisted. After hours on the trail and once we reached the summit, it was breathtaking. We sat in silence watching the sun rise before us taking it all in. I remember him wiping sweat off his forehead with a red bandana, and noticing how his skin was now filled with deep ridges. I remember wondering when that happened or if they had been there the whole time. I remember him smiling and saying “It’s worth it, Karina, the hard work is worth it. Don’t try to give up just because the road gets tough. If the horse gets tired rest, but you have to keep going.”
My Papa Lalo taught me to not give up no matter how hard it gets, but he also taught me to give to others selflessly even when we are going through our own silent struggles. He was always so focused on giving me great adventures and wonderful memories, but he never told me about his battle with cancer, he didn’t tell anyone. The following year there was no trip to Mexico, my hero was gone. I wished for his strength to endure the hardships I had to face and his wisdom to show me the way. Now almost 9 years after his death, I travel back in time to sit on the old tree where his stories once filled the silent street. Nine years later, I continue to use that advice as motivation to complete the nursing program while working two jobs. His words will help me become a better person every day and will help me spread kindness. His memory will live through my nursing career when I am given the opportunity to help those who need care while fighting their silent battles. I will rest if I get tired, but I will not give up. I will selflessly devote myself to my work and my patients.
I remember the day I decided to volunteer at the hospice. I was in college, and I asked my pre-med advisor about what extracurricular activities I should seek out. He told me to find opportunities that would show me different aspects of medicine. “If it were me,” he said, “I would want to see how I would handle death.”
I naturally thought of the nearby hospice. I was eager to get involved in clinical work. As much as I enjoyed my classes, I knew that this type of interpersonal interaction was what drew me most to medicine. It’s the science of humanity, I quipped, thinking I was clever. I genuinely believed it though, and I yearned to live it out rather than simply check off a list of activities. I thought that as a hospice volunteer, I would learn to appreciate the value of the doctor-patient relationship, see the limits of medicine firsthand, and hear from patients with different medical conditions that have reached those limits. And, as my advisor suggested, I would learn about death.
I volunteered at the hospice for over two years. Each week, I would visit residents and help them move around the facility or get them something to drink, most of the time, though, we just sat and talked.
My most memorable interaction was with an elderly woman in Room 208. I was warned that she tired easily and didn’t like visitors to stay very long. As I hesitantly entered her room, I heard the sounds of a football game from the TV. To my surprise, she was a big Denver Broncos fan, and we instantly connected over our shared love for sports. Over the next year, she and I became fast friends, chatting about everything from school to family to hobbies. She shared her story, and I shared the stories I hoped to still write. She had accepted that she didn’t have much time left, and said that the hospice allowed her to enjoy her last months with comfort, dignity, and independence, on her own terms and surrounded by loved ones.
When patients began to decline, the hospice would sometimes request volunteers to sit with them around the clock. I remember getting the email for Room 208. I came in around 11pm. We greeted each other, but she was too weak to say much more. I visited again a few days later, and this time, I heard the shallow breathing that had become familiar to me. I said goodbye to her and her family, knowing that it might be the last time.
She passed away two days later.
As I think about her story, I also revisit the expectations I had as a first-time volunteer. My time at the hospice certainly taught me about death. More than anything, though, it taught me about life. I remember the seniors I met — their voices, their laughs, their stories. I didn’t learn about medical conditions, but I learned about the human condition.
Many residents talked to me about their experience with health care and about their relationships with their doctors. Like the woman in 208, they were grateful, not disappointed, as I may have expected. Seeing this taught me more about medicine than I could have imagined. I once saw hospice care as the limit of medicine, but I realize now that it epitomizes medicine itself. Through volunteering, I saw that for the hundreds of medical conditions that we cannot cure or treat effectively, the purpose of medicine is to provide care and improve well-being. If hospice care is indeed the best option for a patient, then we can’t ignore that it achieves this goal best.
The resident in Room 208 gave me a new perspective as a future physician, something that I believe will prove invaluable for me moving forward. I’m in my third year of medical school now and am pursuing a career in oncology. I know that each person I treat is just that — a person, with unique biology, but also with unique stories, dreams, and wishes. As Dr. Francis Peabody once said, “The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” It’s the science of humanity, after all.
Angel Ridout has been a content writer and SEO editor at A Place for Mom since 2012. She’s put her psychology degree to use working in residential care homes in Washington and writing about mental illness in the elderly. She loves interacting with families and professionals dedicated to seniors’ well-being and sharing their experiences.