But Gisela was unusual in some important ways. Perhaps most notably, she had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany only a few decades earlier and her English was still pretty tough to interpret. What's more, she could often be found with her nose buried in her Bible, searching for edification and consolation--an increasingly rare sight these days. But it wasn’t just any Bible she turned to. Hers was rendered in German, in the old gothic typeface that, like so many other precious remnants of the past, is going to its grave along with today’s elderly Germans.
I visited Gisela weekly for several years, trying my best to converse with her about the things of this world and the next. But communicating with her was always a struggle for me. I tried to resurrect my self-taught German from 40 years ago, with little success; once we’d shared a few laughs over “wo ist die Bibliothek?” and chuckled over my lame attempts to read her Bible aloud, I didn’t have much else to contribute. Sometimes we’d just give up, sitting quietly or perhaps singing one of the hymns she’d mastered in English.
And then, one lovely fall day, along came a new volunteer who was also a native German. Elderly herself, “Ursula” was a wonder, friendly and laughing and oh, so eager to forge a friendship with Gisela.
They had a flurry of lively visits together, chattering away about the old country – at least, I assume that was their primary topic, because I’d hear the names of German cities and towns being bandied about. And through those weeks, Gisela seemed as happy as I’d ever known her to be.
But then, life happened. Ursula’s own health was failing, and the visits stopped. Gisela clearly missed her friend. She fell into a gloom that not even my pathetic attempts at conversational German could dispel. And a few months later, she went on home to her Lord and Savior.
The moral of this story?
Please, if you have some interest or skill that might make a shut-in’s day, week or year, don’t keep it to yourself. For instance, if you:
- Speak a foreign language
- Excel at mending clothing while you chat
- Love a good game of bridge or Scrabble
- Enjoy scrapbooking or writing letters
- Are fond of organizing a chatty coffee or lemonade klatsch
- Play old songs (especially hymns) on the piano or guitar
- Like to read aloud, whether it's books or magazines or, best of all, the Bible
- Pray unceasingly, especially for other people
- Think it's fun to teach others how to crochet or knit
- Find nothing more satisfying than re-organizing the contents of drawers or closets
- Are quite an expert amateur birder with a homemade slide show that no one your age is interested in seeing
- Have any of a hundred other special skills or interests that an old lady or old man might appreciate
Don't wait another day! Call a few nearby nursing-home Activities Directors to find out if they have any residents whom you could delight. And even if they don’t have such a need right now, leave your name and number so they can find you in the future, should that situation change.
A girlfriend who volunteers at a rural memory-care center told me that, in this little facility, she has found her purpose in life. Perhaps you can, too, simply by sharing whatever makes you happy with a new elderly friend or two.