11 July

Meditation Talk: Can The Residents Find Happiness In Life?

by Jon Katz

I taught my meditation class at the Mansion Thursday morning, we had our usual full table in the dining room.

I’ve decided to make the classes very real, and I choose a topic and we talk about it when the meditation is over. I want to talk about real things, not just amuse the residents who come, or distract them.

For all the activities, I rarely seem then wanting to talk about what’s really on their minds. And they are not often given the chance.

The Mansion does a great job of offering activities to the residents every day, usually more than once. The emotions or relationships of the residents are rarely, if ever, discussed. Activities tend to revolve around puzzles, cooking, large print word games, simple trivia, outings, sitting on the porch,  TV and music.

I am pleased and surprised by how much these meditations sessions mean to the residents. I thought they’d run from it.

When I arrive, they are all waiting for me in the dining room. We use the same table every week.

Sometimes, I am arrogant, I think I’m the only one pursuing a spiritual life, but all of the residents of the Mansion are deeply spiritual, they live in the shadow of love, loss and death. They pray often and deeply.

The meditation topic today was happiness, and I put it to the meditators directly.

Is it difficult for people in assisted care to be happy, to know happiness? Or is life too challenging.

The Mansion residents, like most people in elder care, live on the edge of a precipice every day, and the fall over the other side is very deep and frightening. Illness can strike at any time, the physical issues of aging only mount, they don’t decline. They just keep getting worse.

The residents see a lot of suffering and death. They can find happiness in their lives, they all said so, but it is not always easy and not all the time.

Death is never far away, neither is transfer to a nursing home, from which very few people return. Their bodies are falling apart.  Is dinner and lunch really enough for someone to look forward to every day? It’s a Catch 22 for many. If they seek urgent medical help, they’l get taken to the hospital or to a nursing home. If they don’t get help, they may suffer greatly.

We meditated on this subject for 15 minutes, then I asked the people attending if they could talk about happiness, if they find it, how they find it, what it means to them.

I’ve always thought that hope and happiness were two of the things I ought to work on in my volunteer work. It’s a tough sell.

It’s rough being one of the extreme elderly, limited in mobility, energy and sometimes memory and comfort.  These are rural people, mostly farm people. They worked all of their lives and  took care of themselves all of their lives.

They aren’t used to talking about their emotions at any stage of life,  they are mesmerized by our attempts to do that in meditation class.

And they very much like to talk about life there. Things that are generally avoided are topics for us to share.

Today, several of the people in the class said they felt happiest when they went on the boat ride on Lake George last year and the year before ( organized by the Army Of Good). Why?, I asked them. Did they love the water?

They said the ride gave them happiness and hope, it was something they could look forward too, there weren’t too many of those when you get to be “our age” – sixties and seventies and eighties.

One of the things almost all of the meditators said kept them from happiness is that they no longer were responsible for anything but getting dressed and taking some pills.

They no longer prepared meals, took care of kids and husbands, ran a household, cleaned and shopped.
“I’m not responsible for anything any more,” said one. “I imagine everyone is just waiting for me to die and get out of their hair.”

I said I agreed it was difficult to be happy thinking that.

Maybe, said one, happiness is just  something to look forward to you. “At our age,” said Madeline, who is quite happy being quoted, “you don’t turn happiness away, ever. I look in the mirror every morning to make sure I’m alive.”

If you live in assisted care, there is not much to look forward to by definition in some ways, you’re not going anywhere. “People need something to look forward to.”

The talk was fascinating, one of the most honest and open I have shared at the Mansion. I’m not going to reveal identities with comments, I think it just wouldn’t be right, even thought they are willing.

These quotes are real, I’ve smoothed one or two out.

“I do feel happiness,” one woman said, “but it comes from the outside – my grandchildren, my nephews and nieces. This is very nice place to live, I feel safe and the people are very kind. But I know I will ever leave here standing up, I know I am near the end. When that gets into your head, it stays there, and I can be happy, but I can’t say I am happy about where I live in life. There are so many things I used to do that I will never do again. There was some silence after that.”

Another said: “I have happy moments. When we sing, when I sit out by the garden with a friend and we talk. The aides are sweet and attentive. When someone comes to visit me. Otherwise, I am just living…I don’t think about being happy. Something hurts all the time.”

We talked about the small ways of being happy. Thinking of friends we care about. Music we love to hear. Family members who love us. “People who send letters to us,” said one.

It was a good and important talk. I said I wasn’t sure this point in life was generally a happy time, it was full of loss, change, discomfort, physical decline and anxiety.

I thought as we ended the session and got up to leave, that it wasn’t my job to make people feel better or tell them how they should feel. I couldn’t fix things, or change the trajectory of their lives. I would never urge people to fight on, or take heroic measures to keep themselves alive.

My job is to listen and hear them.

The residents do love to get letters. I should caution you that many can’t respond. They are too frail, or they forget, or they have no pens or stationery, or sometimes they get sick and die. When that happens, I can’t tell you about it unless I have advance permission from or their families.

I can’t ever write about the specifics of anyone’s medication condition, or say if they’ve left (Sylvie asked me to write about her).

You may never know if your letters got read.  I don’t ask them who they’ve written to, and who they haven’t. That’s not my business.

The reward is in the giving, I think, or not at all.

Here is a list of residents who wish to get letters: Ellen, Mary,  Jean, Carol, Alice, Sylvie, Madeline, Helen, Alanna, Peggie, Annette, Dottie, Tim, Art, Wayne, Ruth, Georgina.

Letters should be addressed to the individual resident, c/o The Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. And thank you.



  1. You are brilliant. You have come to a typical recovery type format all on your own. I sat in such groups when my youngest was born with a handicap. I sat in a room with others speaking in small increments about a specific topic to recover from the effects of an alcoholic father on the family. It is a powerful tool for good and it works brilliantly. I was impressed. Letting others speak of a common thread is healing and knowing not to try to fix it is so intuitive – brilliant really. Well done you.

  2. Jon, this is a much needed posting of yours this morning about the elderly, about ‘heaven’s waiting room’ as we younger folks used to call it. Well, I’m nearly the age of those in residence, thankfully still have my health to some degree and I volunteer in an organization called Telecheck, where we call seniors in their homes to check on them once or twice a day. Sometimes our calls are the only people they talk to in a day. Doctors have long made the comment that the elderly suffer depression. Which comes first, the breaking down of the body or the depression. The breaking down of the body and health obviously. But so little attention is given to the elderly. I’ve long admired the work you do with the elderly. Yes, I know, from my own experience, that I am rewarded by just talking to the elderly of whom I am one myself. Their courage in facing a life that is near to ending is so uplifting for me to share in. Thank you for this posting, not enough is spoken of the elderly and how they cope with life. I admire the work you are doing in making a contribution to other’s lives.
    Sandy Small Proudfoot, Canada

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