A silent, elderly resident intrigues a friendly visitor

Patricia (not her real name) promised me that when she arrives in heaven, as she surely will, her first request will be to have her speech back. She is a 15-year or so resident at the Jewish Home in San Francisco. Like nearly everything I think I know about her, I'm not sure about the years or any other facts I've learned about her. A stroke prevents her from speaking, seeing well, eating solid food and walking.

As a "friendly visitor," my official title, I've gone to the Home one afternoon a week for the past six years and spent a few minutes to half an hour with up to about 20 residents.

The number varies, depending on who I run across and who seems to need a kind word or two. But I try to spend more time with Patricia and residents like her, who have no relatives to visit them or perhaps only a friend who rarely comes.

As a non-staff person, all I can provide is an attentive ear. I carry no "history" and so I'm "safe," like the stranger you sit next to on a plane or train and to whom you tell your latest woes. I see my role as a patient and sympathetic listener, especially for residents whose physical and mental resources are failing.

The Home, I can say from experience, is one of the best senior facilities in the country. But no matter how good it is, the residents are still in an institution. I see myself as bringing a bit of normality into their confined lives, like a neighbor dropping by with a joke, a few words about the weather and complaints about the high price of groceries.

In return, I have learned a simple lesson. It is not about wisdom or some other profundity about life as it nears its end. Rather, I have learned that if it were necessary for me to live in a senior facility, I would get by through helping others, whether this means reading to the blind, pushing a wheelchair for the lame or making small talk with someone who has no visitors.

I have learned a great deal about Patricia, too — although I'm not sure I've got it right. Was she really once a classical ballet dancer? This and other information came by playing a "20-questions" type of game with her. I begin by talking a bit about my week and wait until she interrupts with a wave of her hand or a guttural sound, which indicates some personal involvement. I then proceed to ask her a series of follow-up questions in an attempt to elicit more information.

"Ah, so you've traveled, too? The U.S.? Europe? Paris! Did you fly there or take a ship? Hmm, I see…Ah, and you gambled on the boat, too. What, you played the horses?"

When I get off the track, as I often do, she loses patience, but I persist in probing. I fear, though, that so many of the things I've learned about her may be the result of ending my questions too soon. And sometimes she may simply nod "yes" to get me to move on.

When I arrive in heaven, hopefully, I'll be looking forward to having Patricia correct, in her own words, all the misinformation I have about her.