In my day job I work in development for a large nonprofit company. My company manages seven housing facilities for seniors—from government-subsidized housing to upscale retirement communities. Another facet of the company is that we offer Community Service programs for low-income seniors in the Bay Area. I raise money for these programs.
Because my office is adjacent to one of our high-end retirement communities, I encounter seniors every day. Over the course of six years, I’ve met some wonderful and interesting older adults. Jacques Iselin was one of them.
Originally from Switzerland, Jacques had a thick accent and a no-nonsense demeanor. He walked around the retirement community like he owned the place. The atmosphere of a retirement home, I’ve learned, is just like high school. It has all the same elements—the “in crowd,” the rumor mill, the backstabbers, the misfits, the troublemakers—except that all the “kids” are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Jacques Iselin was definitely one of the “cool kids.”
When I met Jacques in early 2005, my first impression, I have to admit, wasn’t a good one. I remember him barging into my office and telling me—not asking me, but telling me—to do something. I can’t recall the details of his request but I do remember thinking, “Who the hell IS this guy?”
Over the course of the next year or so, I began to "get” Jacques. Beneath the gruff exterior was a nice guy. And a great human being.
Although my personality is nothing like Jacques’, I still viewed him is kind of a role model. He lived life the way I believe it should be lived. He traveled extensively, was kind, stayed active, and generously gave back to his community with his time and money. In the nonprofit senior services sector, two widely used buzz phrases are: “healthy aging” and “aging successfully.” Jacques was the embodiment of both those terms. (As his wife Silvia would say to friends, “Jacques is so healthy, it’s sickening.”)
In early January, Jacques began experiencing some pain which worsened over the course of a couple weeks. As the pain became unbearable, he went to the doctor. During an examination at the hospital, it was discovered that Jacques had cancer. Everywhere. Jacques’ body was filled with tumors.
Upon giving Jacques this shocking news, the doctor said there were two options: 1. Undergo a rigorous chemotherapy treatment that would likely add months, possibly even years, to his life or 2. Do nothing, in which case he would have just weeks to live. Jacques chose Option 2.
When Jacques returned to the retirement community’s Health Center, he wrote a letter which Silvia placed on the main bulletin board for all residents to see. It read:
You may have heard that I was in the hospital. The doctor discovered that I have cancer in several vital organs. Instead of enduring a painful and prolonged chemotherapy treatment, I have decided to leave this earth with dignity. I’ve had a great life. I’ve traveled the world and lived to a good old age. I have no regrets.
“I would love for you to visit me in the Health Center. My eyes may be closed when you come in but just say my name and I’ll be happy to talk with you. I look forward to seeing you!”
Last Friday, January 28, I went up to the Health Center to visit Jacques. He was lying in his bed, looking very frail, and his eyes were indeed closed. Instantly I had flashbacks of visiting my father in the hospital eight years earlier. My dad died of cancer in 2003 at the age of 63. I was surprised how quickly those memories came rushing back. I contemplated turning around. Instead I said, “Jacques?”
Jacques’ eyes immediately opened and he turned his head towards me. A weak smile came across his face and he began to sit up. It was clear he had lost a lot of weight. “Hey,” he said. “How are you?”
His well-known gruff exterior was gone. He was simply a dying man, at peace with his decision to leave this world. Thanks to the morphine, he was in no pain. He looked frail but he also looked extremely content.
We chatted briefly and I resisted the temptation to say “Goodbye.” Instead I told him, “We’re all thinking about you down there.” Before I headed out the door, I reached out my hand. Jacques grabbed it and squeezed it. “Take care,” he said.
Yesterday morning, February 3, I received an email from the retirement community next door. Whenever a resident passes away, we are notified. The email subject line was: “Death notice.” I knew who it was before I opened it.
Jacques Iselin passed away peacefully early in the morning on February 3. He was 87 years old.
Goodbye, Jacques. You lived your life well, with no regrets.
I hope to do the same.