a Decade in Elder Care
An interview with Elizabeth Ketz
Greetings, Elizabeth. Wonder is focusing on the topic of vocation, career choices and our responsibility of “sharing our blessings” with those around us, particularly through our career choices. You have always spoken very highly of your career, and have described it on several occasions as spiritually rewarding. We’d like to share a bit of your story. First, can you describe what it is that you do?
Sure. I am an exercise specialist at a nursing home and retirement community, with independent and assisted living facilities. The home I work at currently is also Roman Catholic, and was started several decades ago by the Benedictine Sisters. As an exercise specialist, I am responsible for working with residents on various fitness programs that they elect to participate in. Practically speaking, our work in the fitness center is similar to physical therapy, except our goals are different. Physical therapy is a targeted rehabilitation process, whereas our fitness exercise is to maintain health and help the residents retain abilities needed in daily living. The residents often do show improvement in strength, coordination, balance – as to all people who exercise routinely – but for Mrs Thompson, for instance, our goal is to keep her walking so that she is able to transport herself to the cafeteria every evening to join her friends for dinner and bridge. Plus, most of our work is through group classes, so it’s an opportunity for our residents to socialize, as well.
Is this a career you have always pictured yourself in? Work with geriatrics? Or did this seem to happen by accident? How do you understand this process?
Well, simply put, in college, I never would have imagined myself in this job. But on the other hand, I have always had a desire to help people, generally in a therapeutic capacity. So in college if you would have asked me where I would see myself in 10 years, I fully expected and intended to do pediatric physical therapy. But this is still well within my field of interest. And after college I worked a few really lousy part time jobs, so when an opportunity presented itself at this assisted living facility, I went for it without hesitation. And it’s been such a blessing ever since.
A blessing…how so?
Wow. Where can I start?! So, I’m doing what I enjoy. I’m helping people every day, and doing so through physical therapy / exercise, which is something that I like, that I have studied, that I understand. So that is personally fulfilling. And I am clearly making a difference in people’s lives. It’s a good job, good hours, fair wage, and I work with friends and am friends with my clients. These are things I recognized very quickly.
But I’ve come to see other blessings as well, the longer I’ve been working in this field. First off, I am working with a segment of the population that is otherwise neglected by our society. Very few of our residents leave the facility very often. They get visits from friends and family, but this is their life: old people, surrounded by other old people and the facility staff that attends to them all. So to them, I represent a connection to a world they once lived in and have now lost. I’m young. I’m a mother of young children. I see shows, sporting events, travel. And I’ve come to realize how important it is to my clients’ well-being for me to let myself connect these people back to the world. I can’t make the world remember them, but I get to know these people as friends, and suddenly they are not so far removed.
Second, this segment of the population is very close to death. They are well into their twilight years, most of them struggling very hard to maintain some remnant of physical and mental health until the end. And they are all very well aware of their mortality, and are also wrestling with that. Trying to prepare themselves for death, trying to understand their lives in retrospect, or sometimes to tie up loose ends – everybody approaches death differently, but at the home, it is a regular topic of conversation. Of course, what can I say in response? But I see it as a blessing that my residents are comfortable talking with me about such a powerful, intimate topic. It has had a very deep impact on me to work daily with people who are at the end of their lives, when I, conversely, am mostly surrounded by new, young life outside of my work.
Finally, (and this is really interesting) I said before that I always had my heart set on pediatrics, and I suspect now that I would find that work more stressful and less fulfilling than geriatrics. These people have had lives. The pediatric patients I would likely work with are in a far worse situation – many of them will never lead normal lives. Don’t get me wrong – the people who work with them are doing something incredible, something beautiful. But I just don’t know if I would have the stomach for such work. It’s a strange type of relief to realize that I didn’t have to learn that the hard way.
So how do you understand your work in terms of vocation? Were you called to do this? Are you sharing your blessings with others through your career? Is this a form of ministry? Is this all part of God’s plan?
See, all of those phrases are foreign to me. I don’t disagree with them, but I don’t think of my work in this way. Was I called to do exercise science at a nursing home? No. Nothing so specific. In fact, I mentioned before that I don’t know that I could handle doing physical therapy / rehab exercise with pediatric patients, but when I was in school, I was convinced that’s what I was supposed to do, if we can ever have such a specific career goal. To look at my career choice more generically, I have always wanted to help people – have felt compelled to help people, through healthcare. And yes, I do think that this is part of God’s plan. My career, as I said, is a blessing, and in return I take the job seriously. I do well at my work and I enjoy it. So is that sharing my blessings? I suppose it is. Of course, helping people is always a ministry.
I know what you’re asking, though. I do see my work as noble, important, holy, meaningful, and I am happy to do it. So many people can’t find that satisfaction in their careers. I simply don’t struggle with that. I believe in what I do. It seems to be an extension of my life, my faith, my religious beliefs. I wish that all people who choose to work can find this comfort in their careers, this harmony in their lives. And I have the added bonus of working for a catholic organization, so faith, worship and prayer are very much a part of the community in which I work and my residents live. Although I’m not Catholic myself, the atmosphere adds to what is already a rewarding career.
I would tell everybody looking to work in healthcare to consider very seriously nursing homes and retirement communities. Making career choices is hard, though. So I wonder…I know many people struggle with ideas like “what am I supposed to do with my life?” “What is God’s plan for me?” Maybe just having an open mind is what’s important? That, and an intent to be a Christian in whatever you do. I don’t know. I would like to hear what others think, but I do know that I thank God that I have a career that I find to be beneficial to others, that aligns with my faith, and that is socially, mentally and spiritually rewarding.