"For life, with all it yields of joy and woe,
And hope and fear, ‑‑believe the aged friend‑‑
Is just a chance o'the prize of learning love”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I recently had a phone call from a local newspaper wanting to write an article on a success story from our geriatrics clinic. We reached an impasse when we could not agree on what constitutes success. They seemed to want to hear about a healthy person who had been cured. I told them I really don’t take care of anyone like that—and yet I think that we have successes. Those of us who care for the very elderly and infirm tend to think of success as achievement of a good quality of life.
One lady who has been a great example of successful aging is Mrs. Leona Davis. She might not seem like the obvious fit for the reporter who wanted someone articulate and photogenic but she thinks she’s aged successfully. The centenarian humped over in a wheelchair with her wig askew, eyes magnified by cataract glasses, and elephantine legs might appear less than model-like. And, it might be hard to believe that she is successful in light of her failing health, her paucity of money, fears of pain and moving to a nursing home as well as absence of family. Yet it seems like her success lies in her strong relationships.
After the few family members she had died years ago, Mrs. Davis did not feel sorry for herself—she grew her own surrogate family. This “family” now cares for her with the devotion of the closest of blood relatives. Through their support, she has stayed in her own home alone long beyond when most elderly would be able to do so.
Mrs. Davis extended herself throughout her life and consequently, developed relationships that span several generations. For instance, she took in the man who now functions as a surrogate grandson about twenty years ago when as a young man, he first emigrated from
. Though he was a stranger, she was happy to help him get started when she allowed him to board free in her upstairs bedroom until he could afford to pay rent. Now a successful businessman with a family of his own, he comes by weekly to visit and help around her apartment. Cuba
The woman who has filled the position of surrogate daughter is a physician for whom Mrs. Davis worked many years ago as a housekeeper. They grew very close and now, despite living a thousand miles apart, they talk weekly and are able to see each other fairly often. This "daughter" financially supports a home health aide to help Mrs. Davis with bathing, cooking and housekeeping.
Other friends deliver groceries, provide transportation, help with doctor's appointments and just come to talk. Mrs. Davis gave generously from her heart to others throughout the years and now, she is reaping the benefits of the love she has sown and cultivated. Even now, this woman who can barely get around with a walker and can see only with difficulty continues to give to others by tutoring inner city youth in reading, attending an annual summer camp for disadvantaged children and continuing work in her church.
This giving attitude has left Mrs. Davis vulnerable‑‑and there have been those who have taken advantage of her trusting spirit. But, when she tells the story about the woman who came in to clean her house and stole four‑and‑a‑half pairs of her shoes, she chuckles, "Now, whatever would anyone do with the half pair of shoes?"
While this remarkable woman certainly has suffered many trials and tribulations in her life, her vibrant stories downplay them. She clearly expresses that all that she has endured is surpassed by the love she experiences from the lives of those that touch hers. This, to me, is "successful aging."