LeadingAge Magazine · September/October 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 05
This is the third in a series of columns inspired by the “This I Believe” series of guest essays introduced by broadcaster Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and revived decades later by National Public Radio. We have invited personal thought pieces in which contributors reflect on the core values and beliefs acquired and “lessons learned” in our not-for-profit sector.

by Angelique D’Silva-Williams

I was raised with an immense appreciation of family and a reverence for seniors. I learned at a young age not only to ask elders to tell stories but also to ask them for advice. As a leader, I now understand that seniors’ advice and life experiences offer myriad opportunities to learn from. One senior, in particular, has shaped my willingness to trust and forgive even in the midst of difficulties.

In 2007, we were able to provide affordable housing to a mentally impaired older woman. Her impairments are not outwardly visible; they are internal damages resulting from a difficult life. She experienced mental and physical abuse from her parents that was carried on into adulthood. Because of this abuse, she lived on the streets and always had to fend for herself. Her impairments are deep and not easy for others to understand or accommodate. People who have contact with her are challenged by her brashness and often respond by giving her attitude or inadequate service. She is continually being kicked out or banned from businesses and turned away even from agencies that have a mission to help her.

Limited training or knowledge results in broken communication with seniors who have mental impairments. Broken communication leads, in turn, to frustration; in many cases, the senior becomes distressed and exhibits inappropriate behavior. Often, the person leaves these interactions with empty hands because internal damage suffered long ago created scars that keep him or her from communicating needs effectively.

I have learned from this older woman, however, that instead of allowing her impairments to define her, she has made a deliberate decision daily to forgive those who hurt or mistreat her. She is a courageous individual who perseveres and remains resourceful. She has acquired various wellness tools on her own, irrespective of daily roadblocks. One of these tools is trust, which she displays openly with me and which has improved the quality of her life. Her conscious choice to trust me has enabled me to assist her. I earned that trust by showing a deep, sincere interest in ensuring her self-respect and dignity.

One of a person’s greatest needs is to belong to or be part of something. I learned from this woman that establishing trust is critical to having a positive impact on the lives of others, both residents and employees. Humans grow through our interactions, especially with those who are different from us. Individuals with outlooks, values and attitudes unlike our own challenge our thinking, which ultimately expands our reach as to who we are as individuals.

- Angelique D’Silva-Williams is director of occupancy & regulatory affairs, TELACU Residential Management, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.

by Marvin Kaiser

Some years ago I was privileged to work for an international organization focused on global aging, which provided me the opportunity to travel and meet advocates for older adults throughout the world. On one such trip I met with a group of advocates from several Pacific Rim countries; during a discussion, I noticed a participant was becoming somewhat agitated. Knowing I was from the U.S., she suddenly blurted out, “I know what you do with older folks in your country. You remove them from jobs, separate them from their families, and house them in nursing homes.”

As she paused, I attempted to explain the culture of aging in the United States. Unimpressed by my point of view, she shot back, “We do not want to do that here!” I noted the affirmative nods from her colleagues before she challenged me again: “I expect you to help us by showing how people in our countries might be treated differently than people in your country.”

This brief, unplanned exchange has had a significant impact on my life and especially in my subsequent work. Let me explain.

First, she reinforced the lesson that if I aspired to provide leadership about aging policy and programs, I had to start by being a respectful listener open to the perspectives of others, including those who come from traditions, cultures, histories and family structures that differ from my own. In other words, I had to engage others with humility.

Second, she reminded me that effective leadership means I always have to explore, test and reflect upon my assumptions about my work and my framing of policy and practice. As well, I should never become intellectually or culturally complacent with my world and its assumptions. As a result, I have consciously thrown myself into environments and engaged with those whose vision, practice and values challenge me.

Third, she helped me realize the importance of courage and the action that follows. As she listened and explored my assumptions, my challenger had the courage to speak out and put her own convictions on the table. She was willing to take a risk by challenging me and expecting me to act on her request to “help her find a way to think and act differently.”

Her voice continues to resound and challenge me to this day. I am indebted to her for her candor, passion and understanding of the special relationship and opportunities that exist between the lives and roles of older persons and communities in which they reside. It’s clear my advocate friend understood intuitively the meaning of the “age friendly community” in all its dimensions. As such, her gift to me was in challenging me to do the same. I don’t know if I served her well or changed her world, but she certainly changed mine.

- Marvin Kaiser is CEO of Mary’s Woods at Marylhurst, Lake Oswego, OR.

by Suzanne Pugh

Everything was chugging along in my life plan just as I had anticipated, worked for, thought through, visualized and executed. Strong education, check. Great job, check. Nice home, check. Loving family, check. Strong faith, check. Good friends, check. So what’s next?

It was time to have a baby! I mean, it was next on the list. My Blackberry told me so. (It was 2002.) Off I went to “make it happen.” Only … it didn’t quite just “happen,” at least not as planned. I did all the right things: nutrition, exercise, vitamins, read the books and, you know, the stuff you do. But it wasn’t happening.

OK, I’ve got this. We’ll do it the hard way; I can handle that, too. Researched the right clinics, the right docs, the right drugs, the right “acrobatics.” I fervently reduced stress and started on the fertility journey I had laid out.

Two years and a lot of dollars later, it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen according to my plan. I remember the day very well when the doctor told me, at 38, that I had “tough old eggs” and would not be getting pregnant. I was angry—at myself for waiting too long, at the doctor for not working his magic, at God for giving me tough old eggs. Angry at how out of control I felt.

I prayed. I reflected on how in control I thought I had been my whole life. I have always had a strong faith, but did I truly trust? Trust the wonderful family I was blessed to have? Trust the loyal, honest friends I valued so deeply? Trust the intelligent, talented, caring professionals who surrounded me? Trust my God?

A light started to shine. Had I honestly believed I was doing “all this” myself all these years? How arrogant and freakishly controlling I had been. So I started letting go. It was slow at first. I don’t have to run every meeting at work. I don’t have to plan every holiday meal for the family. I don’t have to be pregnant to be a mom.

Fast forward through a failed adoption (that didn’t devastate me; it just wasn’t the child meant for me) and, months later, into a hospital room in the middle of tumbleweed Texas. As I watched the birth of my precious son and witnessed the courage of his young birth-parent heroes as they laid our baby in my arms, I knew that I was so not in control of it all. And isn’t that wonderful? Look how amazing it all turned out!

Do the work, but also trust. Know that while it may not be your plan, there may be a much better one right at your fingertips, if you listen and let go.

I still have to be mindful of the control beast inside me raising its head. The best solution for that, I’ve found, is to look into the face of my 11-year-old miracle and smile when he says, “Just chill, Mom; it’s all good.” And it is.

- Suzanne Pugh is president and CEO of Aldersgate in Charlotte, NC.