Clients who are Elders – Advice From the Field
This week I received a message from Frances. She is strict with her spending habits, so she only gets her windows cleaned every other year. I called back and we determined that this year was not her cleaning year. When we said goodbye, I prayed that she’d still be alive next year, because Frances is now pushing 91, and no one lasts forever.
But if anyone could, I bet Frances could.
I have a long history with Frances, but she doesn’t remember all of it. Over a decade ago, when I was a newbie, working for the former owners of the business I own now, I scratched two of her panes with a razor in my unskilled hands. She hit the roof. My boss resolved the issue, even though it was my fault. Years later, after I took over the business, she called me to clean the windows in her much smaller condo, and has been delighted to see me during each one of the last 4 cleanings. She follows me around from room to room, and I love laughing with her and hearing her stories. But she has no idea it was me who scratched her previous panes, and I have no intention of reminding her. When I am her age, I hope to have her vitality, and to have good help, like me now, not me ten years ago.
Richard and Patricia are in their mid 80s. They are the first to call me every spring. They have heavy, wooden, disintegrating Andersen windows from 1985. I hate those freakin’ windows, and I only clean 6 of them. Each year, they crumble just a little more. But I love Patty and Dick. In the past, they were like a spousal comedy duo. Their jokes and timing were always hilarious. But over the last few years, I have had many hushed talks with Patty over Dick’s decline into severe dementia, because I’ve lived through it myself with a cherished friend, so I am skilled at – for example - reacting with a fresh response (rather than irritation) every time Dick wanders into the room and asks, “So, how ya been, kid?” Even though he has asked me five times already, and will ask five more times before I am finished. This is just how it goes, and I know.
80-year-old Mr. S treated the last manager of Window Ninja, a person of color, so badly that when I took over the business, he advised, “Do not even bother with Mr. S. He’s a mean old man and he’s not worth it.” But Mr. S called, and scheduled, and now I clean for him twice a year. True, he is old, and he complains a lot about being old, but more than that, he is isolated and desperately misses his dead wife and his distant children. He has no one. Each cleaning, he asks about my life and tries hard to give me advice. “You just need to meet a nice guy, and not work so damn hard,” he says. “Thanks, Mr. S. That’s not really my path, but I will keep my eyes open,” I say. We always greet and part with smiles. And he keeps calling back for cleanings every spring and fall.
Polly was one of my first clients when I started window cleaning, before her dementia started. Her windows were impossible, 4-paned double-hungs with storms from the 1960s. Good thing Polly was always fun to talk to! I had been volunteering and interacting with elders since my mid 20s, and when I met Polly, I fell right in love with her. Her sunny personality never faded even when her mind did. Her family ended up asking me to live with Polly in her final years at her house, before they moved her into memory care. She used to love watching me load and unload my ladders at the beginning and end of my workdays.
Elders. Not “old people,” “seniors” or even “the elderly,” (nor “pensioners,” nor “bluehairs,” you Brits) because all of those terms diminish them, but elders. And not even OUR elders, because they don’t need to be related to us, to matter. They are all of ours, to protect and care for, because our greater culture does not, and often, their own families don’t either.
Our country is just about the most broken place on earth when it comes to respecting and caring for elders. Basically, we suck at it. We may even feel ourselves look right through their wise old faces, because those wrinkles have that irritating quality of reminding us that we are all mortal, and that we are also in the process of aging, and of dying, and lots of us don’t like to think about that.
Now, I am no expert in geriatrics, but I’m a good window cleaner and about 25% of my clients are over 70. There are several things to keep in mind when interacting with elders as clients, in my experience.
Tradesmen and women should be aware that even elders who appear to be wealthy sometimes had parents or family who lived through the depression, and they still carry that trauma. They are also often on fixed incomes, and so they will refuse to pay high rates for services. If you want their business, bid lower. And if they love and trust you, expect referrals.
Do not text an elder. Call them.
One thing I have heard repeated from elders is that they miss feeling useful. If an elder offers you a coffee or water or a snack or even lunch, accept it. They love it.
As a woman in a man’s field, and with many brown friends, I’m aware of sexist and racist attitudes that elders sometimes don’t even bother to hide. My most reliable reactions include a reminder to self that they are products of a different era, and a well-timed comeback.
Try to keep in mind that in many cases, elders are isolated and lonely, and they seem to watch loads of News TV. I think this leads to anxiety and trust issues when dealing with unfamiliar workers in their homes. They can be both terribly out of practice, socially, and yet starved for human connection and interaction, and that can be a delicate path for us to navigate. Proceed carefully.
Again, the most reliable solutions to awkwardness include humor and empathy. Keep in mind that hearing loss is common, so speak slower and slightly louder than you may be used to, and face elders when you talk to them. Avoid the temptation to fill silence chattering about your own dumb life, and ask them questions about their long lives, and then listen to their stories.
One thing about elders is that they know by now what they value in life, and they will usually express that your good work and honesty is appreciated. Treat their homes – and them – as carefully and as well as you can. Let them know with your words that you value their human experience, and that they still matter. More than any other type of client, elders need to hear this.