I have a standing date on Tuesday nights with an 83-year-old woman. Selma makes me laugh. Sometimes her candor even makes me blush. It’s a guaranteed good time. When I arrive, she’s usually watching what she always watches — CNN. Because her macular degeneration prevents her from reading the TV listings, she simply doesn’t ever change the channel.
Yet Selma is curious about the world around her, including every one of the nurses who works on her floor at a San Francisco assisted-living facility. She is kind, clever, opinionated and politically literate.
But she has arthritis and needs a walker, even just to walk the length of her room. Her nurses don’t have enough time to engage her in long conversations. Her eyesight prevents her from driving and from reading. Which is to say that as much as she wants to be in the world, her reality keeps out.
That’s where I can help. I bring the outside into her apartment, along with news articles she can no longer read on her own, positive energy and a youthful outlook.
I met Selma through an S.F.-based business called Engage As You Age. The company pairs older adults who are homebound or just a little lonely with someone who shares their interests.
The core philosophy is that older adults and the elderly need more than a nurse to administer medication or a driver to take them to the grocery store. They still want to learn about new ideas or make new friends even though they might not be able to attend the lecture, opera or book club of their choice.
Since September, I’ve spent every Tuesday evening with Selma. We are a great fit for one another. She’s a lefty Jewish lady who grew up in Brooklyn. Her parents came to the United States from Poland, and were active members of the Workmen’s Circle, a Yiddish culture socialist organization.
She’s passionate about women’s health, politics and science. Knowing this, I read to her articles on topics I know she’ll enjoy. I can count on her to interrupt me to ask questions or debate the writer’s point.
After months of weekly visits, Selma has become an unexpected friend and confidante.
I signed up to work for Engage As You Age for two primary reasons. One, I wanted to make a little extra money. And two, I wanted to do it in a meaningful way.
My only remaining grandparent lives in Cleveland. She’s 85 and fighting a second bout with cancer. I live 2,500 miles away. To say I feel guilty, helpless and far away is an understatement.
And so I visit Selma. Sitting with her makes me feel a little more connected to my grandma. I’m not sure exactly why, because Selma’s attitude and outlook is quite unlike my grandmother’s. Perhaps it is because I am similarly enthralled by her stories from a very different time.
We Jews today talk a lot about social justice and tikkun olam. We like to connect those ideals to marriage equality, environmental ethics, literacy, health care access, sustainable agriculture, education and homelessness.
When I sit with Selma, I am making no progress on any of these issues. Yet I still feel as though I am healing the world, because I bring so much joy to one little woman, who lives nearly invisibly in a corner apartment on the first floor of an old-age home.
Every week she tells me one of three things: that I’ve saved her life, she’s in love with me, or I’m the highlight of her week. Meaningful work, indeed.
Dozens of Torah verses talk about the importance of respecting and valuing our elders, as does much of rabbinic literature.
While searching for something to include here, the passage I liked best comes from an essay published on WebYeshiva.com.
I leave you, like Jon Stewart, with a moment of Zen: “Wisdom cannot be measured solely in terms of book knowledge. An elderly person may not have completed many tractates or read many books but they have seen different aspects of the human condition over the years and their stories instruct us. In this sense, every elderly person is a sage.”
Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.