The hope chest

“I’m so old I think God forgot about me.”

Believe it or not, that is a statement I have heard more than a few times in my 20-plus years working in long-term care. Aging in general has taken on a new meaning for me as I start to inch closer and closer to that half-a-century mark.

In my office I keep an old ragged chest. It’s black with brown wooden markings and faded brass clips and lock. The leather handle on one side is torn, and on the other side it’s completely gone. This makes it difficult to move. Every once in a while, it takes a new location in my office, but it’s always here. It might look odd in a “professional” office, but it’s been with me for years and I will also keep it close. In it I keep my treasures; like hope chests many of you have, it’s full of memories, articles, notes, cards, goofy memorabilia, some of it sad, some of it funny, but all meaningful. Some of it is personal to my family, but most marks my time in long-term care.

I share this little tidbit with you because the chest is a constant reminder to me of how aging itself is a mystery worth cherishing and discovering. I have had the honor and privilege of witnessing firsthand how growing old can be exciting and heartbreaking all in the same day…same moment really. I have always loved older people. I was fascinated by their stories and impressed by their resilience. Now as I might be viewed by some as old, I have paused and made the decision to view aging as a blessing, not a curse.

Society tells us we should fight it. We laugh about our changing physical appearance and annoying health concerns. Bottom line, aging is a gift. It is a gift worth celebrating. I am at the age where not only are my parents’ lives changing, but our story is evolving as well. Some stories we know have even ended way too soon. Others of us enjoy, with pride bursting, the time watching our children grow into thriving adults.

I listen in awe to those 20, 30, 40 even 50 years older than me and feel nothing but appreciation. I see myself more in them today than I ever have, and for that I am grateful. I hope those younger than me see me as someone with a zest for life and an appreciation for the here and now. I look forward to the chapters to come, even if the pages are a little worn the story will still unfold.

The idea of a “hope chest” itself comes from history and fable. Studied and storied over centuries, they have certainly stood the test of time. I don’t know if they are made any longer, but they should be. There is something about a chest of memories that brings a grounded sense of peace to give us the strength to face whatever may be in store for us.

Every day we face the turmoil of growing older, but there is also grace and beauty in the present, in the memories and in the future. I’ve witnessed great-grandmothers be bridesmaids. I’ve heard a first-hand account of what fighting was really like in World War II. I’ve watched 90-year-olds discover new love when they thought they may never find it again. I’ve also witnessed many people over the century mark become stronger than they ever thought they could.

Has my perspective on aging changed because of the work I do? Absolutely! It is the most incredible silver lining to working in this field. It becomes personal; it shapes who we are and, if you allow yourself to be open to it, your appreciation for growing old is full of hope and memories. We have been given a priceless chest that will stay will us forever.

Julie Thorson is president and CEO of Friendship Haven


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