Today I got the sad news that my client, who had become a good friend, passed away. Jerzy and I used to call her “our Jewish mama” since both our mothers were gone.Ruth Gruber was 99 years old. We started working together when she was 81. I’ve shared her inspiring story with many of my friends and clients and I would like to pay tribute by telling her story to you.
One day Jerzy’s client Martin shared his distress about his mother, who had recently come home from the hospital. She had almost died there. Her esophagus reflex malfunctioned and the acid from her stomach flooded her lungs. She remained in a coma for 11 days. Martin was supervising her care constantly, questioning doctor’s procedures, letting them only do what was medically necessary. Miracles happen, and so Ruth recovered. But having been an independent widow for many years, living alone in a house, driving, and taking care of herself, she now had to transition to a nursing home with 24-hour care. Martin saw how she was gradually getting more and more depressed—staying in bed for months, not eating much and no longer taking an interest in anything. The way things were going, he feared that he would soon lose his mom.
Jerzy suggested that I see what could be done to help. I visited and we talked a little. She was hard of hearing so I needed to adjust my speaking volume, but we had a nice chat. Driving back home, the experiences of being in that place hit me suddenly and overwhelmed me. I had to pull over on the side of the freeway because the tears running down my face were clouding my vision. The dark apartment she was stuck in, the presence of people sleeping in their chairs, the smell, the colors – it all made me feel gloomy and cheerless. I could smell death in the air. I called Jerzy and told him to tell Martin to get her out of this place as soon as possible.
He did. He found a brand new retirement home with small gardens around the facility. Ruthi was eager to choose her own colors to paint the apartment walls. She brought in some of her furniture and favorite paintings from storage to hang on the walls. There was lots of light coming through the windows, and they overlooked newly planted trees. It was a happy place.
We started her routine twice a week with exercises she could do while sitting in a chair, then transitioning to standing and sitting. I asked her to do a little walking outside to have a pleasure of being in the fresh air, smelling flowers, listening to the birds, feeling wind and sun on her skin. She followed my advice. Some days she would surprise me with a beautiful tomato as a gift when I visited. Later she admitted, with a glint in her eye, that she stole it for me from a neighbors’ garden on her walk. I have to have a purpose, she said laughing. Soon she started swimming as well. Within a year she was able to do the full Happy Body routine. Even full sit-ups and bend overs with 20 pounders in each hand. She rocked!
One thing she complained about that she could not hear, so socializing was difficult for her. She decided to start learning sign language (which didn’t work, but her willingness to try was amazing). I suggested that she always try to find one person in a room and talk to them, which she found useful. She was unstoppable. She took some computer lessons so she could write emails to her sons and her family; she participated in fashion shows that the retirement home organized for their members. The most exciting event during the week was bingo night. I loved to leave a couple of dollars for her to play. It was her way to engage, it was also about winning some nickels. The most cherished gift that I received from her was a sunny yellow blanket she secretly knitted when she learned that I was pregnant.
During our weekly meetings, she would share stories about her life, and they were well worth listening to. She was a Holocaust survivor and had escaped death not once but a few times. Her survival skills and ability to cope with life were more than graceful. It was a privilege to hear firsthand how was it to live during wartime and be imprisoned in a work camp and survive. Her proud legacy is her family of three sons and seven grandchildren. She was even fortunate enough to have ten great grandchildren, who she didn’t believe she would live long enough to see. Her will to live was remarkable.
Ruthi was living proof (with an extra 18 years of life) of what one can do if others don’t give up on you. And especially if you are willing to work with change, no matter what your age.
Have you known an elderly person who impacted your way of thinking and whose attitude toward life inspired you?
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