Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

It’s like a dash of smelling salts under the nose. Talking to actual long-term care residents always affects me like that: an abrupt awakening from the fog and unconsciousness of stress, distraction and a barrage of daily trivialities. 

They start speaking and I open my eyes, blink a few times, and wonder where I am. Then as the fog clears, there’s usually a wise and wonderful senior leaning metaphorically over me, asking if I’m OK, and reminding me that in all its breathtaking beauty and inevitable pain, life is always a gift.

“What’s the key to happiness?” I asked one improbably cheerful elderly gentleman recently. He had a list of infirmities that read like a Monday morning NFL injury report, so I figured he must have an incredible secret to share.

“Never give up,” he said instantly, stabbing his finger like the Uncle Sam poster. “Never give up,” he added one more time, in case I’d missed the point.

“I have a perfect life,” said another — a World War II veteran. He cries when he mentions the woman who walked beside him much of his life, but he never backs away from the topic. He honors the past they shared without being stuck in it, and points his cane boldly at the future with a heart-melting smile on his face. 

Zen masters of long-term care. That’s what I call them. They’ve suffered loss, disease, broken hearts and broken bones, and embraced frightening changes that would send most of us scurrying for safety to a dark hole under the porch. But whether enduring the challenge of the therapy gym or the ordeal of reimagining a life with unexpected limitations, they stay endlessly positive and keep battling.

The wisdom and inspiration of age is always available, if we just take the time to listen for it. 

Our residents can teach us to accept, grieve, honor and love. To delight in simply being here. And to never give up.