When You Listen With Your Heart

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 ASAstorytellingproject@gmail.com. 

When you listen to an elder's story, not just with your ears, but with your heart, they can experience your true self. This in turn allows you to become the best version of yourself with that person, but also with others. Let me explain.

When I worked in senior housing, there was a man who was sensitive to noise coming from the apartment above. He would call the maintenance department to report excessive noise. It was always a more seasoned maintenance man who would agree to investigate, until one day I was invited to accompany him to the tenant's apartment.

Thus began my relationship with one of the gentlest souls of the world. Let's call him Mr. Gentle.

The maintenance man, let's call him Mr. Calm, assured Mr. Gentle that he heard nothing but the upstairs' tenant's air conditioner. No footsteps, no music, no voices. Mr. Calm said, however, that he would knock on the other tenant's door, and check if their air conditioning unit was malfunctioning and more noisy than it should be. Mr. Calm soon came back to tell us that the air conditioner upstairs was working fine.

The case manager from a community agency came to see me one day. He said he knew I had visited Mr. Gentle, and he wanted me to know that Mr. Gentle is a Holocaust survivor. He added that he has helped Mr. Gentle from time to time across decades.

Mr. Calm would continue to let me know when Mr. Gentle had called maintenance and would ask me to go up with him to Mr. Gentle's apartment. Soon, Mr. Gentle would just call me.

One day, Mr. Gentle fell and broke a hip, and was sent to the hospital where he needed surgery. As a building social worker, I got a call a few days later from the hospital telling me Mr. Gentle would be discharged to a nursing home because of his dementia.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but you must be talking about some other patient. Mr. Gentle fell on his hip. He left our building with no cognitive issue.” The hospital denied this, saying they could not send him to a rehab facility because with dementia he would not be able to participate in therapy, so they had to send him to a nursing home.

That evening, after work and a quick dinner, I went to visit Mr. Gentle at the hospital. As I approached his bed, he greeted me with a steady stream of Yiddish.

“Ah,” I said to myself, as all was then clear to me about the strange conversation I had had with the nurse that morning. I smiled at Mr. Gentle, and more Yiddish poured out of him. I reminded him that I am not fluent in Yiddish, and I asked him if he could switch to English for me, and he immediately did.

I told him I wanted to check on how he was doing, and we talked. Before I left for the night, I told him that some staff at hospitals don't speak anything but English, so while at the hospital, could he try to speak to people in English? He nodded. I said good night.

I started work extra early the next morning, to catch the hospital nurse before she began her shift. I mentioned I had been to see Mr. Gentle the previous evening, and that his first language is Yiddish. It is not gibberish that she and other staff thought he was speaking, and he does not have dementia.

‘I put down my pen. He wasn't going to read his paper, that much was clear.’

Furthermore, he is fluent in English, but due to the stress and anxiety of breaking a hip and having surgery, he had reverted to Yiddish. I advised the nurse that staff could just ask him, “Mr. Gentle, I don’t speak Yiddish, could you please switch back to English?” and he would. I asked for the nurse to have him re-evaluated for discharge to a rehab facility, as he needed rehab before being discharged back to his apartment.

Within hours, I got a call back that Mr. Gentle was being transferred to a rehab facility.

Unfortunately, a bit later on while back in his apartment, Mr. Gentle broke his other hip. He returned to the hospital, rehab, and then back to his apartment. One day, I visited him in his apartment and said the apartment complex was doing pest control in all apartments, and he would need to be out of his apartment while the work was done. I suggested that on that day, we take his Meals on Wheels meal and my lunch; his daily newspaper and my work; and we camp out in a building function room together, a room that wasn't to be treated.

We looked like a mini-parade: Mr. Calm pushing Mr. Gentle in his wheelchair, and me bringing up the rear carrying our lunches, his newspaper and my pile of paperwork to be completed while we waited out pest control. Residents who had not seen Mr. Gentle since his surgery stopped our parade every few feet to welcome him back to the building. Then we bid good-bye to Mr. Calm, and set up our table in the function room so Mr. Gentle could spread out his newspaper, and I my paperwork until such time we would get hungry for our lunches.

A few minutes passed, and I looked up and saw Mr. Gentle was not reading his paper but looking at me. I smiled at him, and asked if he was okay. He nodded. I asked if he needed anything? No. I bent my head over my paperwork ... but then looked up. Mr. Gentle was still looking at me. I put down my pen. He wasn't going to read his paper, that much was clear.

I sat expectantly, and Mr. Gentle launched into his heartbreaking, painful Holocaust story. A parent he had to leave behind due to their health; another loved one shot as they fled; hiding underground (and hence his sensitivity to noise from above). The story poured out of him, and into my heart.

Days afterward, his case manager and I were talking, and I mentioned how Mr. Gentle and I spent the day of pest control together, and he told me his Holocaust story. The caseworker was stunned, telling me he had known the man for decades, and Mr. Gentle had never said a word to him. He told me that the relationship I had developed with Mr. Gentle had made him feel he could share his story with me.

The day came when Mr. Gentle died in his apartment. I cried at the cemetery and mourned his death as if he and I were family, because our connection with each other was a special kind of family. For years, I visited his grave, to make sure the grave was getting its perpetual care and to say prayers for the dead.

I also wanted to talk to him privately. This included telling him that I had started a Holocaust survivors' support group at the apartment complex, and we were holding annual Holocaust memorial services for those tenants who had lost family and friends during the Holocaust, providing them with a place and a time to mourn those who may not have a known grave or date of death. We averaged 175 residents, family members, and friends who attended the services each year. I wanted him to know that I had listened to him with my heart, and all my days I will carry our relationship, and his story, within me.

With the passing of decades and in retirement, I reflect on how Mr. Gentle enabled me to see powerful ways of relating to residents by being my true self. That way I was able to help other Holocaust survivors and their families. Thank you, Mr. Gentle, for bringing out the best in me.

Sandy Alissa Novack, MBA, MSW, is a retired geriatric social worker and disability advocate in Massachusetts. Her series of three poems on dignity and aging across the care continuum was published in the November–December 2022 issue of Generations Today.