Gert Kohen answered my ad posted at the local senior center, inviting women aged 85+ to be interviewed for my blog. She left me a voice message, explaining that she was interested in participating in a project designed to help others.
“I like helping people.”
Being kind and helpful is always foremost in Gert’s mind. She does everything she can to make others feel more connected and more valued.
Gert thinks of herself, at age 92, as the “Mitzvah Lady” in her community because she derives her greatest pleasure in doing for others. She is happier connecting with those on the fray than being a part of the inner circle.
For the past 14 years, Gert has lived in her own apartment in senior housing. There is nowhere else she’d rather live.
“I know exactly why I live here. This is independent housing. I don’t need to be independent on my kids. This is a big, big accomplishment for me.”
Living independently does not mean that people should focus only on themselves, she explains. In fact, it is a constant opportunity to offer mutual support.
“Independent housing means taking care of one another.”
In her building, Gert is the one whose ever-present antennae detects who is isolated and on the fringe of the social scene. As someone established in the community, she offers relief to the outliers by extending her hand in friendship. Gert is that someone.
“I do what I can to assist. It’s part of who I am.”
Gert leaves her table in the dining room to sit next to one who is eating alone. She makes an effort to greet everyone she meets in the lobby.
She has taken the time to learn how to greet her Chinese neighbors in their native language. The rewards derived from this gesture were memorable.
“We usually smile at each other when we see each other in the lobby. The day when I said ‘how are you today’ in Mandarin, their smiles were bigger!”
Gert tells these stories, not for praise, but to express her disappointment that more people fail to see how their behavior inadvertently diminishes and excludes others.
Gert offers more examples. She describes how she invited a woman who rarely leaves her apartment to join her at the weekly bingo game. They sat together, and when the woman had difficulty finding the numbers on her card, Gert came to her assistance. When the game was over, Gert thanked her guest for making her night more special.
“I was thrilled that this woman had an hour to be part of the community.”
One of Gert’s friends was recently diagnosed with a degenerative disease, which has already begun to impact her ability to walk. She is a private person, and Gert knows that she is struggling to come to terms with the change. After hearing about a community workshop geared to those facing similar challenges, Gert urged her neighbor to attend. Sensing her reluctance to seek help, Gert offered to accompany her.
Many senior housing buildings, including Gert’s, have compassionate social workers that work tirelessly to create a more caring community. Gert appreciates their efforts, but she feels strongly that this is not a responsibility for the staff alone.
As a volunteer in the building’s convenience store, she knows who struggles to transport their purchases back to their apartment. She will often deliver a quart of milk to those who find it difficult to carry. She doesn’t wait to be asked for help. She acts quietly to maintain the dignity and privacy of her neighbors.
Gert is emphatic that by connecting with others, her life is measurably enriched.
“I hear people’s stories. I have problems too. Everyone does. Once you hear everybody else’s troubles, yours seem smaller.”
There are, of course, many times when Gert is not available to hold someone’s hand. A dear friend recently died during the night. No one knew of her passing until the following morning. Gert is still pained by the loss and by her inability to offer solace at such a critical time.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time I guess. I’ve had to make myself understand that there wasn’t anything I could have done.”
While Gert and I talk, a young woman enters the apartment and immediately begins to vacuum the bedroom. Gert explains who she is.
“She’s not my homemaker. She’s my friend. Without her, I can’t manage. She should be going to law school, but she doesn’t have the money. Instead, she’s here cleaning apartments.
Sometimes, I hear people say ‘I just fired my girl. She didn’t dust the top of the refrigerator.’ I can’t understand it. Don’t they realize that by being fussy, they are causing someone to lose her job?”
Gert has one thing more to share. She pulls out a list with the names of 20 or so people from her community who, for whatever reason, are often alone. Every Friday afternoon, she faithfully calls each one to say “Shabbat Shalom”.
She describes how she beams when she hears the happiness that her greeting has spurred. Like all acts of kindness, the impact is circular. As Gert extends good wishes to ease another’s loneliness, she begins her own Shabbat celebration with lifted spirits.