Age. It’s one of the inevitable aspects of our lives. It’s like breathing; it happens to everyone, yet no one notices until you point it out. We try not to think about it too much – our society is very much focused on youth – because of all the implications and associations involved. We live day to day in unspoken denial, with the belief that, unlike those that came before us, we will enjoy boundless energy and health. That we are infallible and invulnerable. That we can mock and dismiss our predecessors for their supposedly outdated perspectives. That mortality – the ultimate equalizer – is of no consequence.
I know better.
Just a quick show of hands: How many you reading this care or have cared for an elderly person? I can’t be the only one. Due to the way the cards fell during the 2008 recession, I ended up staying with and assisting some of my older relatives. It’s been a learning experience just from a medical standpoint. Non-functioning immune systems, cancer, diabetic comas, blood sugar, blood pressure, tumors, growths, astigmatism, partial blindness, weak bones, failing organs, infections, sores, memory loss, muscle spasms, loss of balance, twisted ankles, dental work, infusion clinics, nurses’ clinics, pharmacy pickups, heart problems, depression, sleeping problems, bad backs, bad hips, bad joints, bad everything…Most of the problems are hereditary, so I know growing old will not be pleasant. I’ll be turning 30 this year, and I’ve spent more time in hospitals than any non-medical student should. Do you have any idea what it’s like coming home every night and seeing your family grow just a little weaker?
It eats me up inside.
The same goes for how elders are treated on a daily basis. The slow driver holding up your precious commute? Maybe he’s is too physically weak to drive, but he doesn’t have any friends or money to get him where he needs to go. That old lady at the grocery store that smells funny and is cranky all the time? Yeah, she has a life, just like you. Except that hey, maybe she doesn’t get to see her kids anymore. That her family doesn’t care about her, and they only show up at Christmas in a sense of grudging obligation. Maybe her family is dead, and she has to subsist on what little peanuts her social security provides. That, despite all the government policy claims to the contrary, she has to choose between groceries and medicine. And that maybe she lies awake in her bed at night, wishing her body wasn’t aching and her husband was still alive. Wondering how she’s going to pay the bill next week when she’s out of cash. That maybe she might die in her house and go unnoticed for months, simply because the world forgot about her.
That might be you someday.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fear death; I’ve come close enough times to know how quickly and easily it can end. It will happen, and I’m at peace with it. The prolonged suffering that leads up to it, however, is something else entirely. It’s hard getting old. If you’ve got the love and support of family and friends, you’re much better off. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Rather than disregarding our elders, we should spend even more time with them. There’s a belief that age begets wisdom. It’s not necessarily true; everyone is flawed and capable of mistakes no matter how old they are. Some of the most immature people in my life are twice my age, and I’ve grown wary of those who use years as a mark of superiority. If anything, age gives you experience; the extra time is filled with possibilities and opportunities, and it’s just a matter of learning from them.
And passing them on, for that matter. I’ve written before about one of my grandmothers, and how she was easily the strongest person I’d ever known. Not physically – her body was badly broken and warped before she died – but mentally and spiritually. She taught me the value of determination; she lived her last agonizing year with nothing but sheer willpower. If a nearly 100 year-old woman can raise her frail, shattered body up to cook and tend to her flowers every morning, then I know I can do better. That’s the kind of thing you can learn only from your elders; It doesn’t matter how badly you age, but how well you live. I just wish more of my generation (and parents) would bother to listen and understand.
If you have an elderly person in your life, tell them you love them. They’ll probably appreciate it.