You Are More Than Who You Were

Christian Living Communities Denver
Christian Living Communities Denver

Everything in our field of work seems to be focused on who people used to be. We do social histories and health histories and career histories. We share this information with staff and think we know the person.

Many years ago, as a new nursing home administrator, I was quite taken with myself for teaching my staff how important it was to find out who our residents were. “Mr. Smith was the CEO of a fortune 500 company! Don’t just walk by him and see an old man who can’t remember things anymore! Recognize who he was and honor him!” Fortunately life is a journey and we continue to grow and learn. I now understand that only knowing who someone “was” is just as damaging as not knowing them at all.

Is life history important? Heck yes! Where someone has been and what they have experienced shapes that person and helps us find common connections. But if all we are is our past, we’re done for. Stop growing, stop changing and you might as well hang it up. When we create environments where people are only who they have been, we are failing miserably.

If I described myself by telling you who I was 15 years ago you wouldn’t know me at all. You would think I was nothing more than the dope who thought that knowing Mr. Smith was a CEO was the answer to providing a great living environment for elders. How sad would that be? I hope that if you met me another 15 years from now, I would be a heck of a lot more than I am now. Like most of us, I intend to continue to grow and evolve.

At what age do we stop asking people about where they are going and instead ooh and ah only about where they have been? The past is important, yes. Our experiences make us who we are. But when we focus on that, and only that, we are basically saying there is nothing more. Everything you had of value is past. What a sad message we are sending.

The questions we should focus on are not “who were you” and “tell me about your history”, but “who are you becoming? Who will you be? Where are you going? What do you want to learn?”

There is a saying that “words create worlds”. What world are you creating with your questions? “Who were you?” promises nothing but a dead end. “Who are you?” is a bit better but breeds stagnation. “Who will you be?” opens up a whole new world of possibilities and growth.

Article written by

Jill Vitale-Aussem serves as Executive Director at Christian Living Communities Clermont Park Retirement Community, an Eden Alternative-registered community in Denver, CO.

62 Responses

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  1. Student
    Student at | | Reply

    I am a student in AGNG 200 at the Erickson School of Aging. I find this post to be very appealing. As an 22 years old Asian student still studying in a 4-year university, I do not see anything wrong with it growing up in the American culture. However, many Chinese parents would see me as someone who will practically fail life. The mindset of me not graduating “on time” declares me as an irresponsible individual.
    Different people encounters different situation and grows differently. But if we judge a person based on what kind of person an individual was, we may easily overlook what the person, at the moment, needs.

  2. Heather Hill
    Heather Hill at | | Reply

    So good at last to hear someone say this – just what I’ve been feeling for a long time. Yes, the past is important – we become who we are through these experiences. However, by focussing on the past, we may be reinforcing the message to older people that the good times, the valuable times of their lives all lie in the past. We need instead to support the notion that even in age, they have a present and a future, and that there remain possibilities for growth and indeed for living!

  3. Paul Falkowski
    Paul Falkowski at | | Reply

    Thank you for this remarkable insight. As a result I’ll be making some edits to our training program!

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