As an adolescent, I was active in church-based social work and would sometimes help out in homes for the elderly. One of the homes I visited had a quiet, oak-floored entry hall with a distinctive dusty smell. As you stood there, waiting to go inside, it felt as if nothing had changed for centuries.‘Hi Jan!’ I was greeted by Tanja, the duty nurse.
‘Would you like to take care of Mrs. Jones today?
She’s a 78-year-old lady, pretty much wheelchair-bound and she needs help with almost everything. She would like you to take her outside for a little stroll,’ she added.
I was more than willing to help and leaned down to introduce myself before we headed out to the nearby park. As I pushed the wheelchair, I noticed Mrs Jones was hanging her head. We came to a stop and she seemed to be day-dreaming, gazing into the far distance, her head now tilted slightly to the right. Her face was still, almost mask-like as she spoke:
‘My life has no meaning. Everything is difficult when you get old.’ As a young man I couldn’t really relate to what she was saying, but her sadness hung heavy on me, stirring my compassion.
A few steps on, I reached out to pick a branch of delicate white flowers from a small bush along the path and gave it to her with a smile. She immediately straightened up in her wheelchair and looked deeply into my eyes as a heartfelt smile lit up her face. Dozens of creases of joy enlivened the corners of her eyes and lips as if there was one wrinkle for every starlike flower on the twig I had given her.
A tear rolled down her cheek and she whispered: ‘It must be more than 20 years since someone gave me flowers – just like that.’ She marvelled at the beauty of the tiny blossoms then looked up, reflecting:
‘I think I must have stopped looking at flowers.
Now I see them again,’ and her face relaxed into a gentle smile.
When we returned to the home, all the nurses were completely bewildered by the change in the radiant Mrs Jones, who was still cradling her bunch of flowers. They were curious to know what had happened. We both shrugged our shoulders and smiled. ‘The park is so beautiful today,’ was all Mrs. Jones would say.
That was one of the many moments that would guide my life’s work – to bring joy and healing just by being present.
I was touched by the effect my spontaneous gesture had brought to an elderly lady who thought the world held no more surprises for her. Just a few moments of loving attention had transformed her state of mind, visibly increasing her life force. ‘How little it takes,’ I thought.