THE BLOG
02/23/2015 12:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Share New Compassion with Old Souls

Elaine Ambrose

My mother was dying. Her breathing had changed over the past few days; irregular, pausing only to alarm us, then continued with a raspy rattle. My daughter and I sat beside her bed and held her hand, limp and translucent, as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about peace in the valley. Gentle hospice workers came silently during her last week to shift her body and dab a damp sponge on her lips. Though they didn't know her, they treated her with the dignity and grace she deserved.

Outside her room at the assisted living facility, other residents shuffled by, some with walkers, as silent sentinels in the last act of the drama of life. After 87 years, my mother's body and mind were gone, except for her strong heart. We could do nothing but wait.

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According to the National Center for Assisted Living, more than one million senior citizens live in assisted living facilities in the United States. There are horrible reports of abuse and mismanagement, but most of the staff members are loving and responsible caregivers. I met many wonderful people who worked at Mom's various homes and rehabilitation centers. They did the jobs others don't want to do: showered old people, changed adult diapers, fed the feeble ones. They became the family when the real family stopped visiting. Most of the facilities had regular activities and the residents enjoyed group outings, visits from entertainers and craft projects. But many of them live their last years in quiet and lonely resignation.

Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.
-- Pearl S. Buck

It's often easier to show compassion and charity to worthy causes that include children, pets and natural disasters. It's not as appealing to help elderly people, but they are the old souls, the ones who worked to build our country, fought in World War II and faced a steep learning curve as technology during their lifetimes introduced airplane flight, Interstate highways, television, computers and cell phones. In simpler times, they danced to jazz, Sinatra and Glenn Miller. Now, they leave the light on in hopes their adult children will visit.

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If you associate enough with older people who do enjoy their lives, who are not stored away in any golden ghettos, you will gain a sense of continuity and of the possibility for a full life.
-- Margaret Mead

During my mother's last years, before she slipped into dementia, her once-busy calendar was reduced to simple entries: shower on Tuesday and Friday, hair appointment on Thursday and church on Sunday. I watched the spark grow dim in her eyes, and I wept for the proud woman who once worked in the fields, held several jobs as she raised her children and dutifully supported my father's ambitious businesses. When she no longer remembered my name, I pasted name tags on the family pictures that lined her tiny room. "Don't forget us," I whispered. But, it was too late.

Society needs to honor our elderly citizens. There are several ways to show genuine compassion to them:

1. Visit area assisted living facilities and spend time with the residents. Most of them have fascinating stories they are never heard. It's OK if they repeat the same story several times.

2. Informally adopt a grandparent for your family, and include him or her in your activities. Include older neighbors who need help mowing the lawn, shoveling snow or making minor repairs.

3. Volunteer to take them to doctor's appointments, church, parades, lunch and shopping. Many of them spend months inside without ever going beyond the facility.

4. Offer to write letters for them or assist them with calling a friend or relative. My mother stopped answering her telephone when she couldn't push the correct buttons. A month before she died, I held the phone so she could talk with her sister, who lived across the country.

5. Offer to teach a class at an assisted living facility, play the piano, record oral histories, sit with them and go through their scrapbooks.

6. In public, help the elderly by opening doors, giving your seat or place in line, paying for their lunch. Make eye contact and smile.

7. Donate to worthy charities that support the aging. Become involved in groups that include work with and for patients with Alzheimer's and dementia.

8. Encourage your family to participate in your work with older people. Children are often hesitant to reach out to older people, but the old souls crave a child's touch.

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There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.
-- Sophia Loren

My mother passed away on a cool but clear November morning. My children, her legacy, delivered her eulogy. I'm still going through all the articles she left behind, including several well-worn Bibles. Many passages were underlined in ink, and she had placed smiley-face stickers on her favorite verses. Even in death, she made me smile.

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As we grow old... the beauty steals inward.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson