Marginalized. Not taken seriously. That is what I observed as I watched loved ones get old. It is what motivated me to help older people remain relevant and find joy in life at a time when so much is taken away.
I have had the privilege of getting to know many people over the past decade. They range in age (101 being the oldest) and ability. These folks became family to me, which made me want to work harder to make life happier and easier for them.
For most, happiness means being heard and taken seriously.
I often think of Charlyn – one of my first clients. She was an attorney, activist, and volunteer in her prime. When we met she was in the early stages of dementia. And even though she wouldn’t admit it, her eyesight was failing her.
What could I bring to Charlyn, who lived in a nursing home, that would make a difference in her life? We got to know each other over vegan brownies and herbal tea. It didn’t take long for me to see that this woman had so much to offer and despite her diagnoses, she wanted to be impactful.
She reminisced about her days volunteering at Rosie’s Place. She told me that she taught a class at the Boston Center for Adult Education designed specifically for women who wanted to purchase a home. She didn’t want anyone to be taken advantage of.
We talked about hunger and how crazy it is that in this day and age, with so much excess, there are people who don’t have enough food to eat. I asked if there was something that she wanted to do about that. She was hesitant.
She said that there was nothing she could do, at this point in her life. I challenged her assumption. We talked about tangible ways to help people.
Charlyn believed in breakfast – it was fuel for the day. I suggested that we do some research. Could we provide breakfast to someone?
A few days later, I brought my friend’s 13-year-old daughter, Ali, to meet Charlyn. Ali was preparing for her bat mitzvah. Working with Charlyn seemed like a meaningful mitzvah project.
As soon as they met, there was great chemistry. Ali energized Charlyn. At one point she decided that we should be called The Breakfast Brigade. “We are three generations of women,” she said. “Look at what we can do together!”
We googled homeless shelters and started to make phone calls. We wanted to know if anyone wanted breakfast foods for residents. Our first call brought us to voicemail. After about three tries, we reached a human. The person answering the phone was tentative. “We don’t get many calls like this,” he said. Our request came out of the blue – because of Charlyn. We had no affiliation with the place. We just wanted to help.
We learned that families living at this shelter had to walk to a separate facility for meals. “Ridiculous,” said Charlyn. “How are kids expected to do well in school if breakfast is a mile away? How are their parents supposed to be their best selves as they look for jobs?” She felt that this was a basic necessity and that no one should have to shlep from a shelter to a commissary – even if it was just down the street. We could provide breakfast foods that could be served right at the house.
The staff members accepted our offer and we set a date to deliver the food.
Ali, Charlyn, and I went to Costco and picked out items that didn’t require any cooking: cereal, fruit, yogurt, juices, bagels, and cream cheese. Ali pushed the shopping cart while I drove Charlyn down the aisles in her wheelchair.
“We don’t want any junk,” Charlyn told us as we shopped. “Just healthy food. No sugary cereals or doughnuts. Those foods will not give the families the nutrition they need.”
That didn’t stop Charlyn from requesting a package of muffins to take back to the nursing home.
Our next stop was the shelter. Two staff members met us at the front door, while Charlyn waited in the car. They helped Ali and me unload the groceries. We had hoped to bring Charlyn into the home to meet some of the people living there, but that wasn’t allowed because of client confidentiality. I was disappointed but Charlyn understood the need to protect their privacy.
Staff were beyond grateful. I asked them to come to the car to meet Charlyn. That moment will always remain in my thoughts. She sat in the passenger seat – trying to observe what was going on around her (which was a challenge given her limited eyesight).
When they greeted her, they were surprised to learn that this whole idea came from her – an 85-year-old woman. On the outside she looked fragile and worn. But on the inside, she was Charlyn – a determined activist still able to make a positive impact.
They graciously thanked her in person and residents sent her a card a few weeks later. Charlyn was proud. As her memory diminished, I’d remind her of this act of kindness and the many others that she initiated over the years we were together.
Charlyn was concerned that children weren’t reading enough so we wrote a children’s book and donated copies to an elementary school. During the holidays, we collected new mittens and socks and brought them to local nonprofits.
Her final charitable act was helping to make blankets for shelter dogs. She wanted to present the blankets to the people who worked at the shelter. We had visited there a few times and she adored the dogs. Charlyn died before the project was finished. I put together the last blanket and donated them in her memory.
It’s never too late to be impactful.
Tikkun Olam. Θ
Carolyn Schultz Eggert writes from Newton. She has been working to improve the lives of older people for 10 years through her business, Family Friends Boston. Previously she was a reporter for People magazine. Questions? Please email her at