I Was Alone and Scared, So I Know How Older People Feel

I immigrated from Africa and ended up in foster care. I learned English and the subway system and got a job as a (compassionate) home health aide.

by Anonymous

I first arrived in the United States four winters ago from a country that was always sunny. I had heard that it was cold in the United States, but I could have never imagined this: I couldn’t feel my hands. It was the first time I’d seen snow, falling from the sky and making mountains on the sidewalk. I was 16, and everything was different from what I knew.

My mother dropped me at the airport and sent me to live with one of her friends in New York. I arrived without knowing anyone. This was challenging since I come from a culture where family and community are important.

The housing situation didn’t work out with her friend, and I became homeless six weeks after arriving in this country. I did not know any English. I didn’t know the difference between uptown and downtown trains, so taking public transportation made me scared and confused. I was alone and afraid, with nobody to guide me. I ended up in a homeless shelter. I asked my roommates at the shelter to show me how to use Google Maps. It was hard, but little by little I learned how to use it to get around.

A social worker at the shelter helped me get into foster care. With the help of my foster care agency, I enrolled in high school. I learned through my teachers that tutoring was available at my school, so I went three times a week to get extra help for my English. I studied for hours every day.

Even though I started to build my life in this country, I really missed my friends and family. I still haven’t been able to go back home and see them.

Empathy With Older People

My grandmother raised me. She was a very kind woman, the one who guided me most in this life. I learned a lot of my values from her, like the importance of education and respecting others. I also learned to love being with the elderly.

In 2017, I got a job as a home health aide. I travel around all five boroughs of New York City, helping my elderly clients with their daily care routines, cleaning their homes, helping them take showers and maintain daily hygiene, accompanying them to doctors’ appointments, and generally making sure they are happy and safe.

When I visit, I can see loneliness and helplessness on their faces. A lot of people don’t want to spend time with or even think about this population. I can feel their pain: When I first arrived in this country, I felt hopeless and didn’t have anyone to talk to about my struggles and emotions. I understand what it’s like to be alone.

Everybody needs someone to talk to, so that’s what I try to give my clients. I stay extra hours with them, and I can tell they are grateful for this. They ask me where I am from and take an interest in my life. Sometimes they call me late at night because they just want to talk, and they know I’ll be there to listen. They talk for so long that I sometimes fall asleep.

The elderly don’t have many activities to keep them busy. When I come early in the morning, I sometimes see them lying in their beds or sitting in chairs for hours not doing anything. I try to help them be active and have fun. Sometimes I put on music and dance with them, and I try to make them laugh. I encourage them to eat and take walks in the park with me.

Going outside helps people feel like everybody else. When I first arrived to the United States, I didn’t know anything about the country or the culture, so I was forced to stay inside. This job helped me to interact with people who are in a similar position and to make their lives better.

Rose’s Story

A year ago, I worked with a client named Rose, who’s 99 years old. Rose is sweet and lovely, but when I first went to her house, the relationship between us wasn’t that strong. The first time I met her, she just asked me to complete tasks. She didn’t ask any personal questions.

Little by little, though, I built a stronger relationship with Rose by treating her with love and respect. Sometimes, I offer to wash and twist her hair. I help her with her makeup and massage her feet when they are feeling sore. I try to show her that I care about her by doing these little extra things.

After a few months, she began to trust me. She told me about her father and her husband. They were both soldiers in Germany during WWII. Her parents, brothers, and sisters all died. One day she showed me their pictures. I could tell this meant a lot to her and that she needed someone to tell these stories to.

Rose and I became so close that I now call her my best friend. I showed her that even though I am not her family member by blood, I am her family member by love.

Proving Myself

Four years after arriving in this country alone, I have this part-time job I love. I take the train alone, and I can write and speak in English. This year, I moved into a dorm and finished my first semester in college with a 3.68 GPA.

Being brave, asking for help, being kind to my elderly clients, and learning how to do new things helped me grow. Nobody is born knowing everything; we all learn. We learn from the challenges we experience and the people we meet and care for along the way. Being on my own and having to rely on strangers was difficult. I had to push myself to not give up.

Being an immigrant has not been easy, and there are a lot of things that I am still learning about this culture and country. But I continue to work toward my goals and have confidence that I can achieve them. I have learned that I have the skills and capabilities to overcome obstacles. I have proven that to myself many times.

As I reflect back on the last four years, I realize that I have accomplished a lot. I got through this challenging time by turning to my faith and praying, as well as going to therapy and having a safe space to open up, process my emotions, and reflect. Keeping the things that hurt me inside didn’t help; they just kept hurting me from the inside. Having somebody listen to my problems made a huge impact and helped me feel more hopeful about the future.

I have also met other people who have been kind and generous with me and supported me. I received help from many organizations, including Lutheran Social Services, Lawyers for Children, my therapist from African Social Services, and from my tutor at the New York Foundling’s Dorm Project.

I’m also motivated by what I’ve accomplished. Succeeding in a new country and finding work where I can help others has taught me that good things are possible if I believe in myself, connect with others, and make the effort.

Everybody needs someone to talk to, so that's what I try to give my clients.
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