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A Smile for the Elderly

How Linda Cook is making a difference

Linda Cook just needed to get out of the house.

A stay-at-home mom to three-year-old and five-year-old boys, she missed interacting with people in her teaching job. With her sons past the baby stage, she wanted an activity they could share outside their home—hopefully a ministry opportunity.

Since she'd always had a heart for seniors, Linda called the local assisted-living facility and asked to volunteer. The staff was thrilled.

"They suggested I could paint residents' fingernails, play cards with them, or take them for walks," she recalls. And the best part? "They encouraged me to bring along the boys."

"Memories Are All I Have"

Linda clearly remembers that first visit in the summer of 1994. After applying nail polish and playing cards with several members of the community, she discovered a woman in a wheelchair who was eager to get out in the sunshine. So Linda and her boys took the woman for a walk. As they strolled and chatted, the topic eventually turned to growing old. With a chuckle, the woman said, "Honey, when you get to be my age, memories are all you have. So you'd better make them good ones!"

Those words stuck in Linda's head and heart, fueling her desire to make and give as many positive memories to the seniors—and her boys—as was in her power. She and her sons became regulars at the facility. While Linda gave manicures, her older son would play "Go Fish" with residents and the younger would color pictures. In fact, the boys enjoyed the visits as much as the seniors.

"My oldest would ask, 'Are we going to the place where all the grandmas and grandpas live?'" Linda recalls.

Of course, it wasn't always easy. While many residents were eager to see them, others were less enthusiastic or even wished to be left alone. Dealing with such grumpiness was a lesson in compassion—for Linda and for her sons.

"We had to understand that it wasn't necessarily a reflection of our being there, but either that they were hurting or were angry at their situation," Linda says. "They're frustrated about having to be away from their homes and in a facility. They're frustrated by pain. And maybe they can't communicate. So whenever the boys and I would run across someone who was belligerent, I'd explain to my kids that we don't snap back at them. Instead we need to continue being kind and caring toward them."

Something Bigger

Nearly 15 years have passed, but Linda's enthusiasm for ministering to the elderly continues. In fact, she's recently moved from volunteering to a paid position. While she still works with seniors, she's also using her education background to train others in caregiving.

That means preparing them for the sometimes harsh realities of the task. "You can't be squeamish," Linda says. "Caring for the elderly can come with messes and with smells. It can come with attitudes. It's not going to be Aunt Bea."

And, she admits, the sheer volume of need can be overwhelming. She recalls her first trip to a facility as a paid caregiver, passing people lined up in the hallways, smiling at her and reaching to touch her. When she returned to her car, Linda was overcome with helplessness, wishing she could have spent more time with each one.

Her boss's response was simple: Don't focus on everything you can't do. Instead, focus on the comfort and joy you're bringing while you're there.

That invaluable advice changed the way Linda approached her visits. "I can't spend 15 minutes with every person," she explains. "But I can touch a hand and say, 'You look beautiful today.' I can stroke a cheek or pat a back or kneel down and smile into a face."

Her blessings, she says, come from the connections she's made. Like wheelchair-bound Charlie*, 86 and in the late stages of Alzheimer's. Unable to care for himself and barely able to communicate, Linda helps him eat, reads to him, and takes him for long walks. She treasures the occasional nods and smiles—and on one memorable occasion, a touch to her cheek—that let her know he recognizes her.

"I've gotten more from this than I've given," she says. "It gets me out of myself and my daily issues and helps me realize there's something bigger out there. There are people who need me more than any needs I have myself."

The Guarantee of Joy

Working with seniors has not only given Linda the opportunity to step outside herself, it's enriched her relationship with God. "In this work, success doesn't rest in a paycheck or recognition," she explains. "When the Lord shows you something you can do, something that ministers to others, it's such a blessing."

That blessing has affected her sons as well. Their positive experience with the "grandmas and grandpas" motivated them, even when they were teens, to assist Linda with ministries such as Meals on Wheels.

Though the residents' ability to communicate limits Linda's ability to talk about God, she finds other ways to share her faith. Sometimes she'll bring a hymn book and sing hymns with residents; other times she takes them to their facility's church services.

After so many years, Linda's joy in the work remains undimmed. And she's just as passionate about encouraging others to become involved. "There are so many ways to volunteer," she says. "Take a book or newspaper to read. Walk the hallways playing the violin. A simple smile means the world to these people. Some can't communicate, and others are still as sharp as a tack. In either case, I guarantee you'll find joy in the time you spend bringing joy to them."      



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