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Sitting with Sydney

September 23, 2010
by Alice L. Higgins
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Conversations with the elderly are therapeutic for all parties involved

I always considered sitting a passive activity—that is, until I met Sydney. I then realized how stimulating and invigorating this activity can be. All it takes is a little time, a little attention, and someone like Sydney.

Let me explain how I came to feel this way. I volunteer at a local hospital in their “Hospital Elder Life Program,” where my role is a patient advocate for the elderly. While it is both rewarding and enlightening, it can be heartbreaking at times.

I was midway through my shift, doing paperwork at the nurses’ station, when I looked over and noticed a somber looking gentleman sitting up in a hospital chair. His big brown eyes were watching everything that was happening on the floor. He didn’t seem to miss a thing, yet no one seemed to notice him as they flew past, caught up in their own agendas. He looked so small in that oversized chair that it tugged at my heart.

As I approached him, I thought that he looked like a college professor with his horn-rimmed glasses and pensive face. You could almost see the wheels turning feverishly inside his head, absorbing all that he saw. His look became guarded yet quizzical as I walked up and said, “You look like someone that I would enjoy meeting. My name is Alice and who might you be?” Suddenly his face went from somber and unfocused to bright and resolute as he replied, “I’m Sydney.”

As he began to speak, his eyes became a little brighter and his face more animated. The flood gates opened and his words came tumbling out as he explained that he was 93 years old and, up to this point, had been living in his own home with only minimal household help. He had been in full charge of his affairs, but now for the first time in his life, he felt like a “nothing.” He felt as if he was invisible. He had been a patient for a few days and apparently I had been the only person to stop and spend some time with him. (It is amazing the healing qualities that conversation possesses.) Sydney was fortunate that he had family and friends to visit, but sometimes it’s the company of an outsider that can be most meaningful.

Sydney’s life began to unfold in front of me and it was fascinating. This wonderful man was once a professor of social work at New York University, while maintaining a private practice in psychotherapy. Toward the end of WWII he used his expertise to evaluate the returning soldiers for their fitness to return to civilian affairs. I was completely enthralled with his life story and admired his effort to remember every detail.

Our conversation was interactive and covered books and authors we both enjoyed, how the world has changed, and what the future holds for both of us. His own immediate goal was to get strong enough to get into rehabilitation and go home. My goal was to become a patient advocate. Sydney knew we would both make our goals. I was so energized by him that I hated to say goodbye.

* * *

Sydney realized that something was not quite right with his condition, and he desperately wanted someone to speak with him on what was happening and what he needed to do to improve the situation. He was alert and he wanted to be part of the discussion regarding his healthcare. He felt his questions were important and his opinion had value but no one was listening.

My husband Ty always refers to the elderly as “wisdom people” and it’s so true. They possess a wealth of information and insight, which is often trapped inside, waiting for a little recognition and attention. These “wisdom people” should be viewed as a national treasure—such treatment would only enrich us all. Sydney certainly touched my heart and enriched my soul.

I wished Sydney well and checked on him when he went on to rehabilitation. He was still determined to reach his goal and he told me not to give up on reaching mine. I promised him I was in for the long haul, like him.

People like Sydney have much to offer. While their voices may not be as loud as they once were, they are still strong, vibrant, and valuable.

We constantly talk about providing excellent quality of life for our elderly. What we don’t recognize is that it’s not just their quality of life, but ours as well. Taking the time to sit with men and women like Sydney is a good way to be healthy and productive, regardless of age.

Alice L. Higgins of Floral Park, New York, currently volunteers in a Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Medical Center. She is pursuing a career as a patient advocate and she appreciates any advice readers might offer.

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