What seniors teach us about connecting

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Jody B. Miller
Jody B. Miller

My daughter and I were part of a charity league that requires mothers and daughters to volunteer together for a certain number of hours every year the daughters are in 7th to 12th grade. Our favorite experiences were when we visited with seniors.

On one visit, we gave Julia Child's sister Dorothy a manicure at the senior living community in Mill Valley, CA, where she lived. Dorothy sounded just like her famous chef sister and had a similar zest for life. I thought they were twins.

“People mistake me for my sister all the time,” she explained. “But I'm younger, of course,” she laughed. “And I don't cook anymore.” The laugh grew louder.

I noticed a tower of unopened letters that fell off the edges of the small desk in her tiny room.

“Are those all for you?”

“I'll never answer them all,” she grinned. “Some people write to tell me how much they love my sister, and sometimes they just write because they want to tell me stories.” She was fine with it. We could tell she loved that pile of letters. It meant connection — and purpose.

Visitors, including family members, swept in and out throughout the time we were there, and while I was filing her nails, her phone kept ringing, too. The stories flowed. So did the laughter.

Dorothy's life was full. She was happy, and we loved spending time with her.

After we left, my daughter and I commented about how much fun we had, and all we did was give her a manicure and listen to her stories.

On a visit to a different senior care community, we served dinner to a room full of elders at every stage of life. Some bounced in and plopped into their seats, whereas others took a while to make their way across the room with a walker or cane. Regardless, each person seemed happy to take a seat at the table and visit with one another — and us.

They talked about their health issues and friends who had passed. And then they told stories. One woman used to be an opera singer; another resident was on Broadway in his earlier years. One had 36 great-grandchildren. It was her fulltime job to keep up with birthdays and holidays, but we could tell she loved it.

My own father, who is now 83, loves to tell stories, too. The joy he experiences in conversation is infectious. I love hearing his stories, whether about the last putt he made, how he took the tubes into New York City and wound his way underground from building to building in a snowstorm, or how he, his brother and father built a vacation home for the family on a small lake in Wisconsin, which I frequented as a child.

When my mother-in-law became a widow and moved out of the home where she had raised her four children and into an independent living community, her sadness quickly vanished. I believe it was because she had reconnected with people. She now ate her meals with others, went on trips, to plays, concerts, lectures and luncheons. She even had a boyfriend during the last years of her life.

I loved visiting her, especially during lunchtime. I would pull up a seat and listen to each person at the table. The stories were funny, insightful and filled with wisdom.

“Put your phone away,” one woman said. “Enjoy your life,” said another. “Do your own thing” (this one came from my own Grandma).

These may seem like simple tidbits of advice, but if you think about it, we are always on our phones and frequently distracted.

Put your phone away. I have been out to dinner with friends and wondered why everyone was on their phones, texting, posting photos or taking calls. There was no conversation other than to show a funny picture or get excited about a text response. Unfortunately, it no longer seems rude today. But what are we giving up? Connection. And when the meal is over, our relationship has not advanced. It feels empty. I don't see those friends much anymore.

Enjoy your life. We are so busy trying to make money, climb the corporate ladder and get more stuff that we forget to enjoy the ride. The ride is the best part, and our elders know this.

Do your own thing. My own grandmother at 95 told me this many years ago. I have never forgotten her advice, and I made a pact with myself to follow it — with my career, with my children and with my experiences. I never beat to another's drum, thanks to Grandma. The ride has been amazing.

As the CEO of an executive search and strategic consulting firm, I help people who are at the beginning of their careers, at the height or when they need to create the next chapter after retirement.

Some retirees are part of a fantastic organization called SCORE They give back to professionals in the industries where they worked for years — and they tell stories. I have helped connect many members of SCORE to entrepreneurs and business owners who could benefit from their experience and their stories.

Other seniors, like my mother (who is 82 now), dive into the arts. My mom paints watercolors and once a week she paints with a group of women in the senior community where she lives. They laugh and tell stories while they paint. I encouraged her to display her art at the swim club where she belongs. She even sold some of her paintings.

In my newest book, From Drift to SHIFT: How Change Can Bring True Meaning and Happiness to Your Work and Life, I open with a quote about stories:

“We all love stories. We're born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories,” said Andrew Stanton, writer of Toy Story, in a February 2012 TED talk.

So, whether you serve and care for, volunteer with or visit with seniors in an independent living, assisted living or specialized care, please do yourself a favor and listen to what they have to say. They have great stories to tell, and I promise you, if you take the time to listen, you will learn amazing things. You will leave that visit enriched, enlightened and inspired.

Career and Life Coach Jody B. Miller is author of the new book “From DRIFT to SHIFT: How Change Can Bring True Meaning and Happiness to Your Work and Life.” As CEO of C2C Executive Search & Strategic Management, Miller has helped thousands of people find true meaning in their work and in their lives. Learn more at www.JodyBMiller.com.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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