Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. – Robert Browning
What’s the opposite of old? If you ask a young person, the answer is new. Ask an old person and the answer is young.
Recently, my daughter paid me a compliment that was not only flattering but also made me think. She said, “I acquired my feelings of appreciation for the elderly from you.” By that, she meant that she can understand the “old” ways of thinking, enjoys helping elderly and infirm people and finds value in knowing them. She doesn’t dismiss them as dotty, dribbling fools. “How so?” I asked, wondering what it was that I had done.
Years ago, I volunteered to deliver Meals on Wheels. I would enter the home of an elderly person (or sometimes just someone who needed help on a temporary basis after a debilitating illness). Often, I would spend time chatting, perhaps physically helping by getting a dish from a cabinet, but most of the time, I listened. He had been a screenwriter; she used to be a pharmacist. But to most people, they were just “old.”
Once, on a walk at the beach, I took a rest on a bench and an elderly, somewhat slovenly dressed woman sat down near me. I was braced for some rambling, incoherent “crazy” homeless person. Instead, after we began talking, I discovered that she had been an anthropology professor at a local university. Her style of dress was simply her creativity showing through in someone on in years. We spent a half hour in meaningful conversation and I left better off, enriched by our discourse.
I used to volunteer at a convalescence home where, weekly, I would read to a woman who could no longer manage that simple feat herself. Sometimes we talked about the book; I learned how intelligent she was and knew that she was grateful for the time I spent with her.
But, perhaps the strongest influence in my daughter’s life was my relationship with my father’s two eldest sisters, Aunt Bea and Aunt Sue. They lived in the same apartment building (but not in the same apartment) in Fort Lee, NJ, an hour from my house. After my father passed away at a (now relatively) young age of 78, I grew closer to them and visited monthly. They were both widows and childless. Each time I would go, I silently
thought, “what the heck can we talk about today?” anticipating a boring few hours. Yet each visit was filled with wonderful stories of their lives, their immigration in steerage on a ship in 1906, my Aunt Sue’s brush with rejection, at age 5, at Ellis Island after they discovered she had “diseased eyes.” We shared recipes, I learned a little Yiddish, we went shopping and they showed me their “treasures.” I heard stories of how one morning, they woke up and heard a baby’s cries coming from their mother’s bedroom and knew they had a new baby brother (my dad). Aunt Bea confessed she was a “party girl” and had a “pianola” with music rolls; Aunt Sue listened daily to talk shows and had strong political opinions. And, as often as I could, I took my two children along. After my aunts died at ages 94 and 100, I missed them terribly and still do.
Senior citizens are not to be ignored as they shop or dismissed as they talk. They led interesting lives, most still do, were smart and clever, had beautiful bodies and can still
teach everyone a thing or two. Recently I saw Marilyn Maye at the 92Y singing songs from the Great American Songbook. She’s 88 and looked fabulous, sounded great. One of my friends at the Y where I work out is 10 years older than I am; she says, “If I don’t make it here every week, I’ll start skipping days and soon won’t come at all.” A local artist in my town, with whom I converse from time to time is in his 90’s. His stories are rich and fascinating. These are people I look up to; at my “young” age of 72, I can learn a bit from these senior citizens.
I hope others can as well.