If you want to be around oldness, go to an old-folks home. I started at a young age. A group from my church regularly went to Mayview Nursing Home in Raleigh to do music and devotions. My dad was song-leader so I went as pianist. The place smelled old and stale, with hints of urine and mildew. Not an easy place for a kid to visit.

Most of the residents were wheeled into the meeting room, blankets across their laps, to sit with blank looks on their faces. So few of them sang along that it seemed our visits were more for us than for them.

One man always sat by the piano, where he leaned his head against the old upright, feeling vibrations from the music I played. When we finished our program, he would extend his limp, clammy hand to me, mumbling something I could never quite catch. Even the piano keys felt old and dirty, so I was quick to wash my hands when we finished.

Much as I disliked oldness, I continued to keep company with it while in college, where members of the campus Christian Student Movement would visit the local veterans’ hospital. It was largely a tuberculosis sanatorium, with strict hand-washing requirements. I was glad for that, though in retrospect I doubt it was sufficient to ward off TB germs.

The hospital was worse than Mayview, but perhaps only seemed that way because we went from room-to-room there, and saw more indisposed individuals. I remember one old guy sitting in his wheel chair, a puddle of urine in the floor, lap blanket having slipped off to reveal he was naked from the waist down.

Hard to see. And smell.

But these visits had more meaning. We talked with these patients, taking time to know them, rather than just singing and talking at them.

One patient, a Korean War veteran, had lost both legs and an arm. He was blind and partially deaf, so he used an old-fashioned ear trumpet for us to speak into, an amazingly outdated tool for the seventies. Visits to his room seemed surreal, like a cartoon frame depicting the 1920s. This man had the Bible memorized and asked lots of questions, “Who was the second Adam?” for example. When we didn’t immediately answer, he would quote the answer from Scripture, chapter and verse. I was amazed.

I stayed away from the elderly after college, ignoring the fact that my parents were joining their ranks. Then we moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where our pastor, Mike Smith, asked for my help in doing a bi-monthly program of music and devotions for the folks at Morningside Assisted Living.

We’ve been going now for seventeen years.

We have seen staff come and go. We’ve seen residents come and, well…die, because that’s the main reason they leave.

There was Ms. Lena, the former ballroom dancer. She moved around Morningside with the help of a walker, but cherished pictures of herself dressed in glitzy, flowing gowns, competing on the dance floor. The Morningside Activities Director brought in a young man, a dance instructor, who was able to get Ms. Lena to her feet without the aid of her walker, for one last hurrah as a dancer. The icing on the cake of her life.

Ms. Lena’s favorite hymn was page 505 in our hymnal, “Love Lifted Me.” She requested it every time we were there…even if we had just sung it. She practically danced in her seat as the music played. It’s probably been ten years since she died, but even now, when someone requests that song, Mike and I look at each other and say, “Ms. Lena!”

Ms. Frances, a current resident, is blind and depends on a walker. When I ask for hymn requests, she’s ready, naming several songs at a time. “Let There Be Peace on Earth” is one of her favorites, though not in the hymnal. She’s also big on “In the Garden” and “He Touched Me.” But her regular request, without fail, is “The Warsaw Concerto.” Now of course, when I ask for requests, I’m thinking of hymns for people to sing. “The Warsaw Concerto” doesn’t fall into that category, so I save it for the end of our program…at least as much of it as I can play. I never completely learned that one, but I can manage three or four pages of it. Thankfully, it seems to satisfy Ms. Frances. That, and her jokes. She loves jokes and always shares one with Pastor Mike, while he does likewise. Their laughter warms my heart.

Ms. Lilly was a pretty lady, with striking white hair, always meticulously dressed. She had a penchant for cutting out pictures of beautiful people from fashion magazines and posting them on the bulletin board at Morningside. On these pictures, she would place headshots of Morningside residents. A beautifully dressed dancer in a flowing gown, e.g., would feature the old wrinkled face of Ms. Lena. I love that Morningside management allowed her such creative use of a bulletin board. Ms. Lilly’s pictures kept everyone laughing.

Ms. Maddie was gifted at arranging flowers, and was usually occupied with decorating when we arrived for our programs. I think management allowed her to plant flowers of her choice outside just so she could cut and arrange them as she saw fit.

Ms. Jennie was my favorite. I could always count on her to say the unexpected. Her unique perspectives on life and her colorful language kept me in stitches. She made me believe that getting old was not so terrible after all. She loved talking and sharing memories, while I found joy in listening. I loved, too, that we shared the same birthday, though forty-one years apart.

My parents have passed on as have most of my Morningside friends and I am growing older myself. True, I’ve just now reached retirement age and, hopefully, will never need daily assistance. But I pray that even in my oldness, I’ll find reasons to laugh, young people to encourage, and still have adventures and enjoy life.

Growing old is hard—harder on some because of health conditions—but in the midst of it a person can still learn, love, and laugh. All in thanksgiving. And all for the glory of God.

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