The summer of 2009, I worked at an in-home healthcare company. Olivia was my first patient. 

The first thing I saw when I opened the door was a heavy old lady teetering on the edge of her bed because she couldn’t muster the balance to stand up and use her walker.

That was my first look. I got her into her clothes, and I knew when I helped her pull up her panties and when she took her shirt off in front of me that this poor old woman had lost all her dignity. Whatever she had had growing up, she didn’t have it now. She couldn’t afford to keep it.

I was bouncy, cheerful, unfailingly polite. That was the only way I could handle it. I knew beforehand that there would be nothing romantic about caring for old people, but I was shocked and ashamed to find myself thinking that it was dismally close to useless. It really struck me when I knelt down to put lotion on her legs and feet. I used latex gloves, but I could still feel the toughness of her skin on my fingertips. I don’t know what was wrong with her feet; they were thick and hideously discolored, with weird crusties between her toes. And into my head came the sudden thought: “Her life is over. She might as well just die. She has no purpose anymore, existing like this. Why doesn’t God end this? Or why does He insist that it would be wrong for her to end it herself?”

Blindly, I went on helping her for the next four hours, trying to figure out the purpose behind combing short, ugly hair; pouring Spray-n-Wash on old shirts stained with dribbled food; changing bed sheets smeared with fecal matter. If Olivia (who insisted that I call her by her first name instead of “ma’am”) had been nasty, sour, and bitter, I would have hated it. But she was pleasant and lucid, and she remembered my name from the first moment. Her phone rang after about an hour, and looking at the number, she said, “Oh, this is my nephew. It’ll be a while.” And it was. They talked for at least twenty minutes. And I realized in quiet amazement that this nephew cared for her; that to at least one other person on earth, this old diabetic with kidney failure still mattered.

Of all people, we are the most to blame for the apparent uselessness of the old — we, the busy, the self-absorbed, the young. They grow useless because we have no use for them. That is what defines “useful,” after all, isn’t it: whether or not we still use them. If we don’t do anything with them, then as far as we’re concerned, they might as well not exist.

As senseless as it seems, God has a purpose for Olivia Savage even now. I have no idea what it is, unless it is to show others, like me, that life doesn’t end when your youth, health, beauty, or mobility run out.

Olivia, God is still writing your story. And I’m glad I was able to share a few pages with you.