Promises Made, Promises Kept

Sponsored by ASA’s Legacy Corps, we are running a series of stories from the ASA Storytelling Project, which invites you to reflect on your personal and professional lives, especially as they intersected with aging and ASA, by writing stories. We encourage all ASA members to submit their stories of 250–1,000 words, with a 25–50 word bio, to

Many people who work with older adults have memorable clients who have taught them lessons about life and who hold a special place in their hearts. As I reflect on my 12 years as a service coordinator in low-income housing for older adults, the person I think about is Marie.

I met Marie when she was 96. She had lived a hard but adventurous life and loved to talk about her travels, including teaching English as a second language in Japan.

She always wore a curly orange-red wig, because, she claimed, her silver hair made her “look old.” Many people do that, but Marie was not “many people.” She insisted on holding an umbrella when she went out in the sun, because the tag in her wig warned that it was “made from no-fire-resistant materials” and she worried it might burst into flame if it got too hot.

Despite such quirks, Marie was an educated woman with strong opinions she never hesitated to share. Once I mispronounced the word “address” when asking where she lived, and she told me I had asked her to “address a group” rather than provide her place of residence.

But her special passion was Africa and the African people. Having taken multiple trips to Malawi, she was worried about the life people there led. She believed that helping others was one of the greatest gifts of worship, and to that end she legally adopted a 40-year-old man who had two children, and later a 35-year-old man who came to the United States after she had died. She sent textbooks and religious history books to schools in Africa and paid tuition so her two adopted grandchildren could go to school. She found and sent items people in the villages could use to generate solar power for cooking and to have light at night.

As Marie aged, she repeated stories more often and had increasing bouts of confusion. We recognized that she needed more care than we could provide and that she might not be able to remain alone in her apartment. he had no family and her neighbors had heard her stories so many times they avoided her. After working with her and the local EMTs, we were able to convince her to enter a skilled nursing facility. We helped her celebrate her 100th birthday in that nursing facility one month later.

“I’m a heavy sleeper and mistakes are made all the time!”

When she received a birthday card from President Obama, which had been signed by the first lady, she promptly threw it in the trash, saying, “She shouldn’t sign this, she is not the President.

Marie was memorable in so many ways, but none more than in her opinion about what should happen after her death.

When I helped her make her final arrangements, she said did not want to be buried because she might not be dead and feared being buried alive. “I’m a heavy sleeper and mistakes are made all the time!” she said.

Before she would sign the cremation agreement, I had to promise that I would feel her feet before she was sent to the “heater” to be sure she was actually dead. She made me touch her feet that day, so I could feel that they are normally warm. If her feet were cold, she said, that’s how I would know for sure that she was dead.

Just short of her 102nd birthday, I was called at 4:15 a.m. and informed that she had passed. I was asked to meet the coroner at the local hospital to sign her out so she could be released to the funeral home. I waited in the room with her until the coroner came in, while he checked for a pulse and heartbeat and pronounced her dead.

And yes, I asked him to wait as I removed the sheet and felt her feet to make sure they were cold. I am proud that I kept that promise I had made to her. Each time I walk by her cremains on my shelf, I thank God for placing her in my path to teach me about tolerance and appreciating people for who they are. She will always be in my heart. After working with Marie, I also realized the importance of making those final decisions, for me and for others. Both in life and in death, people have opinions and want to be in control.

I scheduled an appointment and completed my own preplanning so my family would know my wishes. I started a campaign to get the residents in the building where I work to have “the conversation” with their families. To help get these conversations started, I scheduled a funeral home director to do a preplanning presentation in the evening and invited family and friends to attend.

For those who didn’t have family, I worked with them and their chosen funeral director to get their preplanning done, including arrangements for installment payments where necessary. (Most county indigent services only pay for cremation and cremation is not readily accepted by most residents I work with.)

Over the years, I’ve spoken with many people about their wishes. Some conversations are funny, some are serious, and all are important.

Marie lived boldly. She taught me many things about living, including that talking about death is part of it.

Donna K. Wilson has worked at both ends of the age spectrum in her career: first, with Head Start and later, as a service coordinator for two low-income housing buildings in Georgia. She is now a resource specialist for the Northwest Georgia Area Agency on Aging.

Photo caption: Sunset in Nyika National Park, Malawi

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Radek Borovka