This Side of the Pond – Mar. 15

By Sarah Pridgeon

Comedian Patton Oswalt, speaking candidly about the loss of his beloved wife, said he tries to live by the mantra she taught him: “Life is crazy. Be kind.” That’s how we can all be superheroes, he said, and it spoke to me because he was right.

In a world that gets more complicated by the day, the one thing we can do for each other to keep that light shining at the end of the tunnel is to always, without fail, do whatever we can to be kind. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture, just a smile of welcome or a moment of thoughtfulness. It’s a mantra I’d like to live by myself.

I see it in others all the time, especially around here, whether it’s the “official” work of all those wonderful volunteers or finding out a friend thought of me while she was in the UK and made sure to restock my jar of brown gravy. To the person on the receiving end, those moments of kindness can seem very big indeed, as was the case with a story from back home last week.

It was the tale of a lady who had proudly retired from a job at her local supermarket, one she’d held for half a decade. This wasn’t just any job, though, and it wasn’t your average employee. This was a person who wasn’t quite sure what she was doing there whenever she walked through the doors.

Mrs. Salomon had been a bookkeeper for most of her life. Her son described her as organized and good with numbers, until the day she began to suffer the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

It became obvious that she was no longer able to do her job effectively, a fact I can only imagine brought her great pain. She felt she could still contribute, though, so she began to seek an alternative.

Sainsbury’s, one of the largest supermarket chains in Britain, offered her a job as a “picker”, which involves choosing products to match the lists of its online shoppers. She took the role in 2012, already affected by some of the symptoms, though she would not be officially diagnosed until the latter part of 2013.

Her son, Doron, notes that she began to suffer from more than just memory loss. Loss of social skills, mood changes, disorientation, exaggerated emotions, inability to make decisions – all of these and more were impacting Mrs. Salomon.

Staff at the store were made aware of her condition and it wouldn’t be unfair to assume they would wonder if she was up to the job and ask her to consider giving it up. They did quite the opposite.

From that time forward, her son said, the staff at that branch of Sainsbury’s went out of their way to stand by her and make sure she felt happy and valued. They offered her re-training on a regular basis, changed her hours and kept regular meetings with her, along with her husband, to check on her welfare.

They made sure all staff members were aware of her condition and able to help her if she needed it. They even, said her son, created a role for her that didn’t exist, just to make sure there was something she could still do in the store as her condition worsened.

In her last days with the supermarket, Mrs. Salomon’s role was to clean the tote boxes, though it was something already expected of all staff members. At no point was her job title altered from the one she had been awarded at the beginning, they just found new ways for her to contribute.

“To my mum, cleaning the tote boxes became the most important job in the world. If she didn’t do it, the store would fall apart,” said her son in his heartfelt thank you to Sainsbury’s.

“The sense of self worth and pride has undeniably helped with aspects of her Alzheimer’s, such as giving her something to talk about in social situations.”

In the last year, Mrs. Salomon continued to deteriorate to the point that she would go into the store every day confused, wondering where she was and not sure she’d ever set foot there before. Sainsbury’s still didn’t ask her to leave, though the family feared the worst every time her husband was called in for a meeting.

But it always turned out to be because the staff had noticed a decline and were concerned, and wanted to know what more they could do. Last October, her occupational health assessment showed the Alzheimer’s was now advanced and she had become “unemployable”.

They still didn’t let her go. For six more months, she remained with the supermarket until she finally retired last week, the supermarket handling that moment, her son said, with compassion, class and dignity.

Now, I understand that not every employer could do the same thing and, indeed, most businesses couldn’t. But to me, this story is meaningful not for the precise action, but because Sainsbury’s led by example: if you can help somebody, you should. If you have the opportunity to be kind, take it.

The son wanted to thank Sainsbury’s for not only being a fantastic employer, but also incredible on a human level. The supermarket declined the gratitude. The only comment they made was as follows: “No, thank YOU Mrs. Salomon.”