I’ve Got Friends in Old Places

August 24, 2012 | 15 comments

My youngest daughter raced across the polished linoleum of the nursing home’s dining room to get me. We had come to serve dessert to the residents, but this sounded urgent.

“Mommy!” Anna tugged my shirt sleeve. She cupped hands around her mouth to whisper in my ear: “Katherine told me that she wants cake, but her teeth fell out. Can you help me put them back in?”

She pointed to a woman in a wheelchair whose age-spotted arms were crossed over her chest.

“See?” Anna pointed urgently.

Sure enough, Katherine was all gums. She turned our way and smiled a gaping pink smile. A set of false teeth lay on the table.

“Ah, yes… Well, those aren’t her real teeth, Anna. Those are dentures. Sometimes when people get older, they get a new set of teeth that they can take out whenever they want.”

Relieved, Anna took two pieces of angel food cake. She pulled a chair next to Katherine. Side by side, they chewed (and gummed) their mid-afternoon snack.

This is the sort of thing Anna has come to expect when we step through the glass doors of a nursing home. In this place, we breathe in the smell of age and medicine and antiseptic. But it doesn’t scare her anymore.

As a child, my own mother would take me to nursing homes, too. She’d load up the front seat of our maroon Mercury with songbooks, and we’d visit the aging. These people had served as our town’s schoolteachers and 4-H leaders and church choir directors. Before they ended up in nursing homes, they bought our Girl Scout cookies and dropped coins into our UNICEF boxes.

When they eventually died, Mom would walk us down the block to the old Sliefert funeral chapel, where they were laid out in velvet-lined boxes. I peered over the edge of their caskets, and when I thought no one was looking, I would reach a hand in to feel the waxy coldness of death.

That might sound morbid, but it was an important step in my discovery of life and death and faith in God. I saw up close what it meant to be a part of a life cycle spanning the ages.

Today, if we wanted to, we could avoid the pain of aging and death until it was heaved forcefully upon us. We could segregate ourselves by finding neighborhoods and churches that cater only to people our own age. We could even send our children out of the sanctuary so they could attend “kids’ church” with children their own age. And when we turn 65, we could live in communities with people just like us.

But perhaps we would also be shielding ourselves from the mutual benefit of knowing how we fit into a cycle that rings time and space.

As for our family, we want our children to grow up alongside people with wrinkles and gray hair and walkers and false teeth. We attend a church with squirmy babies seated next to wobbly-voiced great-grandmothers.

And when we can, we stop by for short visits at the local nursing home.

After we finished our angel food cake that day, Anna and I walked down the hallway to look for familiar faces.

In the entryway of the TV room sat Ray. His eyes were open, but his chin rested on his chest. Folks said he didn’t seem to respond much in conversation anymore. We tried anyhow.

“Hi, Junger,” I said, calling Ray by his nickname. “We came by to say hello.”
No response.

“We were serving angel food cake today. We have an extra piece if you’d like one.”

Still, no response.

“And Junger?” I tried once more. “I’d like to introduce you to Anna. She’s the great-granddaughter of your old friend Milo Lee. You and Milo sure had a lot of good times fishing and talking about farming, didn’t you?”

And that’s what it took. Junger raised his chin, and those soft eyes focused on a child. He found familiarity in a little girl. It was fuzzy on the edges, but I’m certain he could fit the pieces together.

Anna could sense it, too.

She reached out and touched his veined, gnarled hands. And for three minutes, old Junger didn’t take his eyes off little Anna Lee.

And then, it was time to go.

We waved our goodbyes, and left.

A few days later, a friend called to give me the news: At age 96, good ol’ Junger – a farmer, cribbage player and fisherman from Iowa – had passed away.



A repost from the archives. 

by | August 24, 2012 | 15 comments


  1. Jillie

    Thank you for this, Jennifer. Even though your old friend ‘Junger’ didn’t speak that day, he was obviously aware of your daughter. And that she touched his hand—that drew a tear to my eye.
    We now live in a world that fears ageing more than death itself; more worried about lines on the face and sagging whatevers than we are of what will happen to us when we ‘cross over’. I confess that I’m not crazy about the ageing process…and I do think about loss of capabilities and/or mind function. I don’t want to end up in a nursing home with no one to come see me. I don’t want to be left alone. That’s why visiting the elderly is such a wonderful and precious thing to do.
    It’s funny, but just last night my husband received a call from an old neighbour of his growing up. She’s 92 1/2, she proudly told him. She’s more alive than we are–ministers in music in her assisted-living home, wrote a book at 80 years of age, knits for others…the list goes on. Her mind is as sharp as a tack! And talk about a sense of humour! He was delighted with her call. I haven’t heard him laugh like that in a while. I thank you for this reminder today of just how valuable the elderly are.

    • Lynn Morrissey

      Jillie, I’m with you and your husband! I love the elderly. I loved your description of that beautiful lady. My fear is also not really living before I die. Thank you for being you and for sharing her story!

  2. Lynn Morrissey

    Sweet, dear Jennifer, you have written something very important today that I pray your readers will take deep into their hearts–so deep that they will live it out in their actions as you have. When we cut ourselves off from the elderly, we cut ourselves off from life, from memories, from treasures too vast to count, from love beautifully ripened and sweetly fragrant. The elderly have so much to give–so much more than we can give to them. Your beautiful Anna brought life and love into that barren place (just as you did when you accompanied your wise mother as a little girl); but your daughter and you, I think, were the recipients of a greater love and appreciation even than you gave. I love *old* people! (And, of course, the longer I live, I approach that category). I adored my elderly relatives, the last of whom passed away two years ago just shy of 98. I just knew Uncle Lawrence, born on the day the great Titanic went down one hundred years ago, would live to be a centenarian; but it was not to be. How glad I am that we reached out to each other till the day he died. It breaks my heart to witness so many elderly who are abandoned by their relatives and friends. I suspect it is ultimately those who do the neglecting who are truly impoverished. Bless you and little Anna for sharing your love so lavishly with those who need it most, and for realizing all you have been given in return. I know I have waxed on FAR TOO LONG…but if you will permit me one little story…. When I took Sheridan as a young girl to sing w/ me in an Alzheimer’s daycare center, one old gentleman approached me, all toothless smiles, and (nearly) shouted, “Hey babe! Great to see you! Are you Dolly Parton?” Briefly looking downward, realizing I had not been so amply endowed as she, I just shook my head and said, “I think you are thinking of someone else, but I’m so glad to meet you! My name is Lynn.” 🙂

  3. Susan

    When your life is filled with activity, all you can think about is the next thing on your list. But the older I get (just turned 50, yikes), the greater the burden I have for elderly folks, especially those who are alone.

    What a blessing it is to spend time with someone who really enjoys your company, and is grateful for your presence.
    Thanks for this sweet post, Jennifer.

  4. Sandra Heska King

    I have to buy new tissue–for Getting Down with Jesus posts only. Love you, friend.

  5. linda

    Thank you for this beautiful post. As a 64 yo myself with a 98 yo mother in a nursing home, Jennifer, I know the beauty of the elderly, the stories that flow when asked just those right questions, the delight when a child comes to visit, or when a pet is allowed near. The elderly are precious in the sight of God and I find it so important to be a part of their lives. I not only visit my mother all of the time, but have learned names of so many others, touch many who don’t respond verbally yet do to a touch, say hi to and chat with ones that I once was afraid of, buy half-off the resale-priced clothing for one whose son doesn’t like to shop. I just, last night, brought her a $5.00 blouse that was as gaudy as anything I’ve ever seen and she absolutely LOVED it. She was going to wear it today as the staff would be taking a group to Catfish Charlie’s for lunch! When I saw this blouse, I just knew Miss Margaret would LOOOVVVE it!
    Being around the residents and short-term rehab people in nursing homes is truly important for us and, more-so, for them. I praise God for you and Anna. I am so blessed to have stopped by today.
    Caring through Christ, ~ linda

  6. Rod Bahnson

    Loved the post and please have Anna say hello to the great-grandmother from Jean & I.

  7. Kimberlee Conway Ireton

    Oh Jennifer, I wish you could preach this one from the rooftops. It’s one of the many sad things about our culture, the way we live age-segregated lives. Thank you for being intentional about living multi-generationally and for inspiring your readers to think about why that’s important.

  8. Diana Trautwein

    Oh, amen to the mixing it up. We are part of the family of humanity – every stage of it. like it or not. And you know what? There can be a whole lot to like at every stage. We’re living through the hardest part right now with both of our moms – yet even there, grace can be found, memories surface and gratitude wins the day. Thanks for this good reminder, Jennifer. And thanks to sweet Anna, too.

  9. Ann Kroeker

    I love this one! This is another of the gifts you give to your girls, this comfort level with people from all walks of live, all ages, all life stages…all the way to the end.

  10. Diane Bailey

    This is a precious story and I hope a precious memory for you and Anna. LIfe is too busy, I want to slow down and love the ones who have endured it for so long. I want to hear their stories. Thank you for sharing and reminding us of how very short and dear this life can be.

  11. floyd

    You my friend and sister, we’re called to write for our generation… I can’t remember such an innocent heart… God has touched your soul… and now mine…

  12. Rhonda

    Just in time for me as I’ve been imagining visiting the aged for several weeks now……..inquiring how to go about this. We have no relatives in our nursing home here, but will hope to meet some of the folks there soon.

    Good encouragement.

  13. Dolly@Soulstops

    Sorry to sound like I’m on repeat: but you are such a good mama to bring joy to others with your Anna 🙂


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