11 September

Working Both Ends Of Life: The Young, The Old

by Jon Katz

I love the work I am doing these days with the refugees and with the Mansion residents. I appreciate working on both ends of the spectrum of life, the old and the young. I am learning more than I ever imagined I would know.

Maria comes with me when she can, and we seem to have fun wherever we go. This morning, we visited Nancy and Georgette (Bert sleeps late) at the Secret Garden next to the Mansion.  Georgianna told me she was once a student at Bishop Maginn High School. She told me she grew up in two different orphanages and has good memories of both.

She asked me, as she always does if I might bring her some cigarettes.

Mostly, I say no, it isn’t that I’m disapproving or telling her what to do, it’s just that they cost $10 a pack and there are greater priorities for my spending other people’s money.

Today, I relented and I told Georgianna I’d be back before dark with two packs. She says she only smokes one or two cigarettes a day, I believe that is not quite accurate. Then Maria and I went to Albany to meet with the art students and with Melak, a wonderful refugee student from Iraq and Syria who could use some tuition help.

Georgianna is too old for me to tell her what to do, and it’s not my place to do it.

But cigarettes are expensive, and my budget is limited.  Warm clothes for winter comes first. So I buy her a couple of packs every week or so. The ladies love it when Maria comes, and they laugh and joke and make fun of me.

Once in a while, Georgianna concedes I’m nice, especially if I bring her cigarettes. She is still trying to figure out exactly what I do at the Mansion and why I do it. Like the other residents, she needed to be reassured that I don’t charge for the things I do.

Maria wanted to come to Bishop Maginn with me today, so a couple of hours later, we were hanging out with the artists in Sue’s art class, and I was interviewing Melak.

It’s a fascinating privilege to talk to young people at the start of life and older people nearing the end of life. I see the differences, I see the similarities.

I’ve learned so much from the refugee children and the Mansion residents about youth and aging, dreams and disappointments, acceptance and compromise, hope and resignation. I’ve learned to listen and to see empathy as a sacred gift and obligation.

The refugee kids have mostly all suffered greatly, that is the nature of being a refugee. The Mansion residents also suffer, grappling with age, poverty in some cases, loss and loneliness, sickness and death.

They both urgently need support, mostly in the realm of being comfortable, warm and clean.

Both embrace acceptance, both use humor as a buffer against pain and fear. At the Mansion, a Medicaid facility, some of the residents have no money. None of the refugee children have any money.

Both have great pride and are reluctant to ask for help. Both will accept help if offered in the right way. They both have dignity and grace. They both yearn to be independent, they both understand that is not always possible.

It has taken me much hard work over several years to build trust with the refugees and the elderly, that has sometimes been difficult and slow and fragile. The elderly never really imagined getting old, and the refugee children and their families never imagined being refugees and losing everything. America is a great country, but not an easy country if you are a young refugee or an aging American citizen.

It is important not to patronize them both. It is important to be an active listener. It is important to persist in seeking to help without being pushy or insensitive. Both often have strong religious and cultural beliefs that I have learned to understand and accept.

It is important to support life and culture, not to take life over or promise miracles or seek to radically alter fate. We can’t fix everything, or sometimes, we can’t fix anything.

It is important to help in small but important ways, there is not enough money in all the world to wipe away the problems of refugees or of the non-wealthy elderly in assisted care.

It’s important to spend the money cautiously and wisely.

In the past year, the refugee children and the Mansion residents have come to trust me. That has been a slow, sometimes difficult, sometimes painful process.

These are people who have been traumatized by life or pressured by aging and death. I’ve learned to tread slowly, sensitively and carefully.

Money is a balm and a poison. Money can support relationships or, as often happens, destroy them.

It is easy to hurt, easier to offend. I am learning how to help and how not to help.

I am learning the importance of boundaries, the dangers are always burnout and hubris and overreaching, I focus on the holes in people’s lives, on small acts of great kindness.

I have no magic wands to wave, the people at both ends of this spectrum understand what life is and what it does.

The refugee children are often wise beyond their years, the elderly residents sometimes recede into childhood.

They both tell me often that what they appreciate is the fact that I show up, again and again.

I don’t just appear and disappear. More and more, they will quietly and carefully let me know if they need something, from a bra to sneakers to warm clothing or art supplies. I am at the last resort for many.

I am proud and happy to be doing this work and grateful to the people who support it, and who hopefully learn along with me.



  1. Bless you Jon and Maria, – Jon, you were especially eloquent and poignant in describing what you do, what it means to you, but most especially what it means to the kids, the refugees, the aging, the confused, the dying. And Maria, your smile lights up a universe. Imagining you in some weeks to come, receiving a new puppy, – life, life, life! Embrace it well, – you always have. Your friend in Arizona, Susan

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