Former accountant uses gifts to minister to the elderlyBy Eric Eckert Hands and Feet Marketing
For years, Shirley Robinson felt something integral was missing from her life – a passion she had yet to identify.
It took the power of God and the confident voice of a friend to help her realize her spiritual gift of mercy and find the thing she calls her “niche.”
Now 62 and retired, Shirley shares how her last 12 years were spent living out God’s call on her life to help the elderly.
This is her story.
In 1998, at the age of 48, Shirley, a lifelong St. Louisan, left a lengthy career in accounting that included employment with companies like Anheuser-Busch and The St. Louis Cardinals.
Her husband, Bill, had recently retired after a 34-year career with the St. Louis City Fire Department, and Shirley, 11 years younger than her husband, tried to retire with him. However, she soon found herself getting bored and what she calls “antsy.”
But what could she do? She didn’t really want to go back to accounting. For two years, she tried her hand at catering. She did some inventory work. But nothing seemed to click. And, at 50, she felt she was too old to reinvent herself.
“For so many years, I felt lost. I kept saying ‘What can I do?’” she recalls. “I’m not crafty. I’m not a leader. I was lucky that somebody saw something in me.”
That somebody was a longtime friend named Pearl.
Pearl, who was in her 80s at the time, lived in a senior housing complex on the south side of St. Louis. One day during a visit, Pearl asked Shirley if she’d ever considered helping the elderly, possibly as a nurse’s aid. Shirley laughed and answered that a job like that had never crossed her mind.
Pearl responded with a knowing smile. Then she promptly handed Shirley an application for employment.
“Pearl saw it in me – something I had that I didn’t know I had,” Shirley says.
God had a plan.
Following her friend’s advice, Shirley applied for a job. In 2000, she began working for a senior services company as a nurse’s aid, a lower-level position that required her to travel around the St. Louis Metropolitan Area and care for numerous clients – most of them elderly, many of them sick, some of them dying.
The job was unlike anything she’d ever done, but she’d found her passion. And after less than a year on the job, Shirley was named Employee of the Year.
For the next 12 years, she spent five or more days a week helping the senior citizens of the St. Louis area. She’d help them with minor chores – taking out the trash, doing dishes, folding laundry, making beds. She’d help them with their baths and showers and assist them when they needed help getting in and out of the bathroom. Sometimes she’d go to the grocery store and pick up food for the week or make sure they had their medications.
Those duties were essential, and they were helpful, she says. But they weren’t the most important things to her clients.
“Most of them just want to talk,” she says.
And Shirley can talk!
“It takes me 20 minutes just to say goodbye,” she says, laughing.
When she was an accountant, Shirley was once told during a job review that she talked too much. As a nurse’s aid, she couldn’t talk enough, she said. Her clients longed for visits and conversation.
“They want to know what you’re doing because it helps them remember what they were doing at your age,” she says. “They might not remember what happened yesterday morning, but they remember what they did years ago with their children.”
Conversation, Shirley is quick to emphasize, is a two-way street. With talking comes listening. And sometimes the listening is difficult because many of her clients are dealing with the ills of old age and, sometimes, the specter of death.
“I’ve had one lady say, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be so horrible to die.’ And they all seem to say, ‘Don’t live to be 90!’ So, they’re going through some tough times,” Shirley says. “When they’re complaining about how they feel, let them talk and let them know you understand what they’re saying. Agree with them. It’s a way for them to vent.”
And you know how older people tend to tell the same stories over and over again?
“Listen to them and get thrilled. Even if you’ve heard it a thousand times,” she advises. “You can learn a lot from them. Oh my gosh, do they teach you stuff!”
Shirley learned early in her career as an aid that a simple touch can make a difference. “If you hold their hand and tell them ‘I’m so glad to see you!’ that can make them smile.”
Though she is retired, Shirley continues to check in on her clients. She stops at the store and picks up some of their favorite treats — usually jelly beans and other candies. Her clients quickly become her friends and she cares for them deeply. Sometimes, she becomes the only family they know.
“Sometimes their kids don’t come around much anymore because they don’t want to see their mom or dad in that condition,” she says. “It’s sad for everyone.”
Shirley has often prayed silently for her clients. But since retiring, she’s moved beyond her comfort zone to actually pray out loud with her clients.
“I’m not very good at praying with somebody. It’s pretty new to me,” she says. “But now we say a prayer before I leave. I tell them they can be my practice on how to pray. They enjoy that. Then I give them a good hug.”
Editor’s Note: Shirley is my mother. She has been such an inspiration to me, and it’s been so much fun to see what God has done through her as she’s ministered to the elderly. God has given each one of us spiritual gifts and talents. We’re called to share those gifts and talents with the world, to build the Kingdom of God and glorify our Creator. I want to publicly thank my mother for using her gifts for just that purpose. She’s an incredible mother and grandmother. Lives have been changed because of her.