Friendship with the Elderly
Two mornings a week I visit a few elderly people at a nursing home in Litchfield, Connecticut, that houses about 80 residents, aged 85–100 years old. I visit about 5–15 people weekly, individually, and this regularity establishes a sweet familiarity between us, a friendship that usually lasts until they pass away. I embarked on this one-on-one service in response to a deep calling within to carry out Sathya Sai Baba’s teaching on selfless service, which urges us to reach out in compassion to those in need. In undertaking this spiritual discipline, I knew my intentions would have to be pure, my heart open, and my words impeccable. I also knew that the quality of my presence would require a sacrifice of mental attachments and a suspension of fear and judgments, and possibly a surrender of pre-existing opinions about life and death. But I had no idea to what extent my own perception of life would shift.
Leaving “my story” behind
I live just a few minutes from the nursing home (the distance of 21 Gayatri mantras). On my way there, I prepared by chanting the Gayatri and dedicating all my efforts and the outcome to God. I spent about an hour with each person and developed an intimate rapport with quite a few people over the years. Each individual had a unique and extraordinary story – often involving loss, failing health, transitions, fear, and helplessness. By the time I walked into his or her room, I had committed myself fully to God’s will, with nothing remaining but the desire to serve the need of the moment.
I would sit in front of the elder, looking deeply into his or her eyes, fully attentive to the dynamic potential before us, as my own life story slipped out
the door. When fixed agendas and expectations dissolved, what remained was an opening to the “now,” to accept whatever came up. I called this one-on-one service “interactive,” but it was really “inner active,” for it provided me with direct access to the depth of my being and guided me to an open space within where I discovered within myself unbounded compassion.
I felt humbled by the honesty of recognizing that our paths were crossing for but a short while. We acknowledged and shared the inevitability of aging and found that our experience of transience was exactly the same. We stood in front of one another, not with differences, but with what we had in common – like looking into a mirror.
“Inner-active” service taught me to embody and manifest the compassion I had searched for in others. It taught me that we cannot receive or experience what we do not already have within us. I found compassion manifesting through me as attentiveness, unconditional understanding, readiness to console, and unshakable inner strength. The healing that happened in those moments was nothing short of a miracle that occured without effort.
My fears about death
My motivation to work with people in the last stage of life was nourished by an intense and constant awareness of life’s impermanence. As a young child with an intuitive awareness of the presence of God, I asked myself, “Who am I?” This question became the basis of an unrelenting quest to discern reality from illusion. However, this inquiry brought along with it an underlying anxiety, as I could never find a satisfying answer.
I gradually discovered that there was no solid base to my concept of “self,” yet there was a continuous, internal struggle to be “someone.” The anxiety rapidly manifested itself into an intense fear of death, which lasted for many years and fueled my introspective journey.
Through befriending people who were reaching the end of their earthly journey, I had become vividly aware that all of life was a movement toward love and that we all shared the blessed opportunity to see beyond the mundane details of life to an expanded awareness of our essence.
Experiences with death and dying
I had at times had the privilege of being called to sit at the deathbed of several of my elderly friends, at the request of their family members. These moments I number among the most intimate and humbling of my life. Prior to a final visit, I was not quite sure how I would feel upon entering the room, because of my previous associations of death and dying with feelings of loss, fear, pity, and overall discomfort. I remained very attentive to my thoughts and feelings, watching them play out their predictable schemes in my mind. Reaching the point of simply witnessing the thoughts and feelings, a peace took over, and I felt a sense of readiness as I walked through the door of the room.
I would call on the Lord’s presence and was filled with gratitude that He had put me there at this most meaningful moment. I would gently take the hand of my aged friend and silently recite the Gayatri mantra. An even deeper sense of peace ensued, and I was able to acknowledge that all of life was perfect. The process of dying is sacred and filled with the presence of God. During these moments, union between the individual and God is visible and profoundly moving.
My friend, Helen
Other times, my friends would “leave” in my absence. One morning, I went to visit a 100-year-old friend, Helen, and found someone else in her room; my friend had died the previous week. Helen was a devout Christian with exemplary faith. For the previous 6 years, she and I had engaged in long discussions about spirituality, God, and the world. She had become an intimate friend. We spoke about death openly, as she had no fear whatsoever, and this opened the gates to incredible and uncensored conversations. We sometimes joked, even challenged, each other gently. At times I read the Bible to her, and we would discuss it intensely; other times I would brush her thin hair and massage her neck when she felt stiff. Mostly, we spoke of the presence of God. We both shared a deep love for God, and we felt we had been put together by God, pure and simple.
During our last conversation, I told her that I loved her and that she was an inspiration to me, an extraordinary person of character and human values. At that moment, her usually tough countenance was filled completely with softness, joy, and compassion. She reciprocated with a similar comment about me and waved at me as if she knew she would probably not see me again.
When I found out she had died, I felt grateful, fully content, and a sense of celebration for the completion of a beautiful life. She had wanted to go; she knew it was time, and so did I. I felt happy that her cycle had completed ever so perfectly, and that all was well with the world.
Detachment in the midst of interaction
Through friendships with the elderly in their last stages of life, I learned detachment in the midst of human interaction. Imagining that my efforts wiould yield an expected outcome is attachment. Only in remaining open-hearted and accepting of whatever comes is nonattachment. Only in a state of nonattachment can true compassionate presence arise. Surrendering to the moment of death and deeply accepting what simply is, I let go of all that I hold on to and offer it to the Unknowable Presence, God Himself, knowing that all is perfect and as it should be. To me, this is compassion, beyond all mental concepts – and it brings an upwelling from within of exquisite joy and gratitude.
“Witnessing” a transformation
When I began this work, I engaged first as a friendly visitor and later as a witness to an amazing process of transformation. I learned the power of love that brought God to the forefront and created a sacred link between “me” and “my friend.” Now old anxieties and feelings about death no longer hold any validity. Fears and sentimentality associated with loss have faded to mere shadows in my mind, and I am clear that life itself cannot die; only form changes.
It was an extraordinary experience to love someone without attachment – an expansive feeling has emerged within me. I discovered that at the time of death, there was nothing to be sorry about – I had lost nothing – I had earned only love and felt only joy. It felt like a renewal within, like a deepening journey without return – very constant and very sacred.
Sathya Sai Baba Center of Shelton, CT
Although the author is affiliated with the Sathya Sai Center of Shelton, Connecticut, this article reports on a service activity she embarked on as a personal spiritual discipline in preparation for a pilgrimage to see Sri Sathya Sai Baba in India.