There is a secret that most seniors have already figured out . . . that the rest of us are still learning.

By Leslie Quintanar

I made chicken fingers tonight for my husband and kids. I used to be the one who did all the work, but as my two youngest are maturing, (8 and 10) they now like to participate. I’ve had to let go of my OCD tendencies to refuse help — because it makes a “mess” — in favor of the fact that they love it so much. They fight over who will dip the chicken in the flour, egg, and panko. The elder of the two loves to get out the stool, sit in the corner of the kitchen and eat them as I pull them out of the pan. He repeatedly tells me that this is one of his favorite things. I realize every time I’m making them that I am creating childhood memories for them that will last a lifetime.

Carrying on The Traditions of the Past

I know that because my own mom made chicken fingers with spaghetti when I was a little girl. It’s one of the clearest, pure memories I have of a childhood that wasn’t always so bright. She made them with such love. Little did I know she was stuck in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage to my stepfather. Nor was I aware that she wished she didn’t have to only see me one weekend a month, and she dreaded taking me back to my hot-headed fathers every time our few days were up. In those moments, she was just my mom . . . cooking good things for me and creating memories that would signify love and caring for the rest of my life.

Making Memories To Last A Lifetime

Now when I now cook for my kids, play Yahtzee or Old Maid, read to them, and spend time doing a myriad of different things . . . I am always conscious of what they will remember when they grow up. Will they look back on their childhood and reflect favorably upon those years? Will they see their parents as deeply flawed people who desperately sought to do what was best, even in the midst of some very trying times? I certainly hope so. The thought that they won’t have favorable childhood memories is the stuff of sleepless nights and much worry for me.

The Impact of Senior Living

I’ve always had a bent toward sometimes excessive introspection, but I think that working with seniors for the last 17+ years has also had a significant impact on my view of life. I have so many indelible memories that will never leave me:

  • John, the subject of one of my very first posts, The Naked Milk Drinker

  • Park, who was the subject of my first Resident of the Month display

  • Al, who although jovial on the surface, hid immense loneliness and pain

  • Grace, at whose bedside I was reading Psalm 91 when she breathed her last and entered in eternity

  • Jerry who is vigilant in standing beside his wife as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease

I could go on and on with the memories I have collected over the years. I feel as though they have shaped me and are a part of who I am today, and they come to mind in many daily situations.

Chicken Fingers and Spaghetti

What do these memories have to do with chicken fingers, spaghetti, and my near-constant sense of worry about the quality of my own children’s lives? A lot.

You see, over the course of the years I’ve worked with seniors I’ve not only collected priceless memories, but I’ve watched how they have approached the end of their lives. This includes wealthy, wildly successful, modest, artistic, individuals with mental illness, and everything else in between. None of them seemed to be worried about their status in life, their monetary achievements, or how much time they spent at work.

Instead, they were concerned with relationships; enjoying simple pleasures like holding hands and taking a walk. They were also disinterested in some of the things that had long served as distractions and prevented reconciliation. As Atul Gawande stated in “Being Mortal” for most people as they age, their world narrows, and although you and I might find that disappointing, often it is just the opposite. A sweetness in the daily simplicity emerges, accompanied by a clear, unmuddied perspective — once all the other complications of life are laid aside.

A Foundation of Love, A Future of Hope

When I make chicken fingers for my kids I hope and pray that it will represent much more in their life than just a meal, but it will be a touchstone of their childhood and how much I loved them, even as they grow and need me less and less. And as I age, I see more and more clearly that the simple pleasures and the sweet relationships are what is really important — not the status, the money or the achievements.

These are things our residents already see, having long since passed the stage of life most of us are currently engrossed in with all its busyness and flurry of activity. Let’s pay attention to their perspective and look at the world through a lens that seeks to cherish the moments and hang on to the things that bring us the most joy, not simply the tasks that fill our day.