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What Can You Learn from An Older Person The SeniorScape®

While I’ve always appreciated that you can learn from others, and especially older adults, which was informed and punctuated by my entire professional career in long term care, a recent experience highlights that point. I’m especially happy to be sharing this first story during Women’s History Month.


I’ve been covering at a small long term care facility as a speech/language pathologist in a very remote area in upstate New York. Actually, it’s practically in the middle of nowhere. In its heyday it was a town of approximately 10,000, but with migrating businesses to other areas, the present population is approximately 6,000. One could call it a rather depressed area.


On this particular day, a patient who I’ll call Anne, was in the facility for short-term rehabilitation. The physical therapist accompanied her into the rehabilitation gym and asked her what music she’d like to hear. Anne responded, “Jelly Roll.” The therapist repeatedly said, “Alexa, play Jelly Roll.” But Alexa didn’t understand the therapist, who was a non-native English speaker from an entirely different culture.


Equally interesting was that the patient was an English woman born in Liverpool who spoke with a distinct accent. She proudly recalled hearing the Beatles when they first started out performing at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.


I thought her choice was interesting, especially because the only Jelly Roll I knew of was Jelly Roll Morton, the American ragtime jazz pianist and bandleader who has been claimed to have invented the jazz genre.


After several tries, Alexa finally found “Jelly Roll” playing his song “Save Me”, a captivating ballad telling the story of his troubled past and path to success.


I found Jelly Roll on a Google search. I read his inspirational story about addiction, redemption, and musical success. I began texting several friends about Jelly Roll’s inspirational story; a story I learned from an Liverpool accent speaking English woman age 80 in a nursing home in this remote area In upstate New York.


One of my friends responded to my text saying he knows Jelly Roll. Once she finished exercising, I was curious to find out how Anne learned about Jelly Roll and was excited to tell her I know someone who actually knows Jelly Roll.


Anne told me she heard his music several months ago while driving with her daughter. She was touched and inspired by the heartfelt lyrics of his tormented life, his openness to sing about it, and his somewhat haunting voice that added to the song. While her life wasn’t filled with trouble or torment, she felt everyone should know there is always a path to a better life, as Jelly Roll conveys in his song going from a troubled soul to redemption and ultimate success at the highest level.


Anne and I continued our conversation at some length. At age 80, she told me she never stops learning, looking for new opportunities, continues to live with passion with her eyes wide open, and is excited for each day and the possibilities that it brings.


There was synergy in our outlooks. While I don’t necessarily view each day with the excitement and wonder that Anne seems to possess, there are possibilities and avenues I am continuing to pursue that I would never have dreamed about in my earlier years.


Such conversations continued a few days hence when I visited a gentleman admitted for rehabilitation due to overall weakness and some health concerns. I’ll call him Jim.

Jim is 76 years of age. He told me much of his history and that his habits and behaviors over the past couple of decades landed him in his present situation. He came to the realization that if he didn’t change course and make drastic changes in his life, from sunup to sundown, these self-inflicted wounds would likely result in an early demise.


I was struck by his self-awareness and honesty. Rarely do I come across anyone who explicitly and unequivocally states that he bears responsibility for his present health circumstances and understands that if he takes hold of the reins, even at age 76, he likely can change the course of his health status.


I told him that similarly, I have found a new path moving forward; that path is helping people realize the importance of taking full responsibility for their health and wellbeing, a path that was inspired by my years working in nursing homes, surrounded by people who had they made different choices may not be in the situation.


It’s no secret that some of the conditions we naturally associate with older people do not have to be the case and that a common misconception is that all people in nursing homes are older. Even at the age of 50, there were many people younger than I was at that time. Jim and I were so glad to have met, coming to the same place from two different vantage points. I was thrilled to meet someone who not only embraced that way of thinking but stated it so eloquently. Admittedly, until I met Jim, I was beginning to get discouraged.


I returned from this remote area upstate a few days later only to prepare for my trip to San Diego to attend the event that I have called, an entrepreneurial experience like none other.”  After going through security, I had ample time ahead of my flight boarding time. I decided to to relax and indulge in a drink and a snack.


 While there, I placed a call to my overseas friend. I was telling him that if certain business opportunities on which I’ve been working had come to fruition when I had hoped, sometime between September and November, I would not have been working at the facility in remote Upstate New York, the facility referenced in my experience with Anne and Jim.


Admittedly, initially, it seemed like drudgery. Traveling 3 ½ hours, staying in various places for a week at a time every few weeks, through the cold wintery months. But as I continued that assignment from December through this past week, I not only learned the history of the area, but also the origin of the person and place that transformed the way in which we care for older people, The basis of my passion to raise the collective consciousness and inspire a national conversation on how we value and care for older adults. A passion that is the basis of my film project. Thus, in addition to meeting Anne, Jim and the many others I helped, I realized it was a much-needed important experience.


When I ended the conversation with my friend, the young gal sitting next to me said, “It’s called Beshert.”, the Yiddish word I know, meaning “fated or destiny.” I acknowledged that I knew the word and offered her some of my French fries. (My guilty pleasure while waiting for the plane. French Fries, I can’t even remember when I last had them). She asked me to describe the project I referenced in my conversation with my friend


She proceeded to tell me a little of her story. Her grandfather emigrated from Russia in 1979 with barely enough to survive. He worked hard and eventually pursued his passion and talent to become a watercolor artist.


He inspired her greatly. She told me she recently was able to finally get her own apartment and she’s adorned the walls with her grandfather’s framed watercolors. She went on to tell me that her grandfather’s courage to leave his birthplace, his fortitude to pursue his passion, who he was as a person, and his ultimate success has always been an inspiration in her life.


After picking up one or two more French fries, she hurried off to get to her plane. I wanted us to exchange information, but I suppose that was also not meant to be. I never even got her name.  I suppose it was only meant for me to hear her story and the lessons she learned from her grandfather. What a phenomenal legacy.  For me, it was one more confirmation of how many people are inspired by the older people they know, in their families, in their communities, in their lives, and the value they represent to society.


A short time after the gal left, I boarded my flight to San Diego, still thinking about the serendipitous conversation we had while sharing French fries. It was an easy flight.


But as the pilot announced the descent for landing I remembered an experience Anne shared during our conversation.


A number of years prior she had been on a plane that after the initial descent suddenly swooped back up into the air. She recounted that everyone in the plane let out an audible sigh and then seemed to hold their breath. A few moments later, the pilot announced that the landing gear did not lower properly. As a result, he took the plane back up into airspace until he could be assured the gear would lower for a safe landing, which of course it did.


As Anne related the story, she told me that in the moments following that experience, she realized she never wanted to be in a situation like that again; thinking what she missed, what should she have done or pursued. In other words, she never wanted to be thinking

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.


 I remembered that as my plane came in for the landing, which, thankfully, was smooth and uneventful. Anne’s attitude and vitality for life remained an inspiration to me over a week after our conversation, which started from a simple request for a song.  I learned much from my conversation with her and believe she will remain with me for quite some time.


It's my hope that my experiences and these stories will inspire you in some way or, at the very least, give you pause for thought.
























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