Lessons Learned from an Old Man and a Parakeet


My first job out of college was as a social worker for an agency providing short-term assistance to troubled families. I looked so young that clients kept asking me what grade I was in high school! I worked in 'intake' which meant I interviewed clients seeking temporary assistance. Most of our clients had an injury and couldn't work or were transients or were waiting for permanent assistance due to a disability. Every day the hall would be full of people and many of them would wait hours for their interview.

One day I introduced myself to an elderly man who had just entered my office and asked my usual, 'How may I help you?' He replied, 'My bird died.' I frequently encountered people who had mental illness. So I assumed that I had another person in my office not in touch with reality. Everyone knows that I am an avid animal lover but, for goodness sake, what did he want us to do about his bird dying? It had been a long day and I was tired so before I stopped and thought, I said with some surprise, 'Your bird died? What can we do about that?'

Tears rolled down his face as he told me that he lived on his small social security retirement check. It was just enough for him to pay for his room in the boarding house and his food. Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration had got his name mixed up with another man and declared him dead so he had not received any checks for three months. He told me that this last month his landlady was 'carrying him on rent' and he was surviving on bread and water. However, his parakeet had died eating the bread and water diet. He had outlived most of his friends so this bird was a cherished companion.

He also added that he had always taken care of himself and was very embarrassed to ask for help. I verified his story with the Social Security Administration and learned that they were trying to rectify their error and get him a check within the month. Needless to say, we helped him with food vouchers and paid his rent for one month. We also decided to send a 'field' social worker out just to check up on him.

What lessons did I learn? One was not to jump to conclusions. Another was to listen well and gather all the facts. And to be compassionate even if the situation seems unusual. Bottom line: be kind to others.

As social workers, we were encouraged to leave our clients at the office and not worry about them when we got home. That night I went home and wept for him and for the better person I hoped to become.

Copyright ©2006, Sharon Scott.