Joco Opinion

Therese Park - Growing old gracefully

Updated: 2013-10-28T21:00:01Z

By THERESE PARK

Special to The Star

French poet and novelist Victor Hugo saw his Old Self with grace:

Winter is on my head but eternal spring is in my heart…”

Growing up in Korea when elder respect was an obligation for younger generation, I naively believed that being old was an achievement. I bowed diligently to every grandpa and grandma I saw on the street, eagerly expecting their smiles. But here in the United States, no one talks about elder respect the way Koreans did when I was a youngster, nor do I know of any college teaching such subjects as “Strategic Plans for Golden Age” or “Art of Growing Old.” No wonder I feel outdated like an old garment that collected dust and grime for years.

A recent breakfast seminar on growing old gracefully hosted by the St. Joseph Medical Center helped me see my Old Self in a better light. The event was a gesture of thanks from the hospital staff to their volunteers, who are mostly senior citizens. But for volunteers, it was an occasion to learn a few tricks on how to maintain physical health besides a chance to get to know one another.

At 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 2, the auditorium was filled with the aroma of bacon, eggs and fruit as well as the sight of nearly 100 men and women with winter on their heads and spring in their hearts. They were as chatty as high school students on prom night as they visited one another or served themselves breakfast from the buffet. We began eating after Sister Gabrielle Smits led the prayer, “Bless this food...”

My seat partner, Eldon Conyne, 81, happened to be a Korean War veteran. “I’m glad you came!” he said, adding that he has been reading my columns. His gold Korean War veterans pin on his black suit gave a friendly shine, and he began to look familiar. He has been volunteering almost 20 years ago after he retired from Shawnee Mission School District, where he had been both a teacher and a principal. “I used to arrive at 5 a.m. at the GI lab to prepare patients for surgery or do whatever necessary for surgeons. I worked four days a week, but now whenever they need me, here and there.” In 1999 he was named Volunteer of the Year.

How did he like the volunteer work?

“Very much,” he said, without losing a beat. “I really like being surrounded by well motivated, care-oriented people. I look forward to coming. By working here, I help myself more than I help others.”

His dedication and pride in serving his country, first as a Marine, then an educator and now as a volunteer touched me.

A lecture on staying fit by physical therapist Jennifer Moser was well-planned and presented, with help of an assistant who demonstrated exercises step-by-step. Nutritionist Pam Brill introduced kale, quinoa, baby soybean and oatmeal as “must” ingredients to growing old gracefully. Nurse Tjasha Teague’s lecture on skin care and a healthy body introduced me to cocoa butter as a healthy moisturizer that’s kind to my pocket book.

According to volunteer director Geri Grimes, over 700 volunteers work at the medical center in about 100 different positions, and in 2012 alone, they rendered close to 100,000 hours of service.

“About 20 percent of the volunteers have been with us for more than 10 years and 33 percent for more than five years,” Grimes said. “And about 80 percent of our volunteers have strong ties to the hospital — as former employees or former patients who are grateful for the care they have received. Some come to learn about health care so that they could give helping hands to patients or their neighbors, some to share their expertise and experiences they gained as professionals, but others to simply give back to the community.”

What do I do here as a volunteer?

I’ve been giving a mini cello recital twice a month in a sharing spirit.

Music has been my master and income provider while I played with the symphony, and after retirement in 1997, music’s role in my life has changed. I no longer play for money but for the sake of love of music. My repertoire includes the songs I learned through AFN radio-station during the war as a child as well as an aspiring musician in Paris.

Though I give my time and God-given gift, in reality I receive far more than I give because while playing, I can be filled with the springtime of my life.

And what’s more? I’m growing old gracefully!

Retired musician Therese Park has written three novels. Her most recent, “The Northern Wind: Forced Journey to North Korea,” is available at Rainy Day Books.

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