The ninety-four year old woman walked directly to the front counter. She put down her fistful of envelopes and papers to open her large purse. She pulled out her cheque book. She scanned the premises in search of the business owner with only a casual pause to take note of the rest of us.
Four of us had been in the appliance store for nearly a half hour. No other employees were working during this seasonal holiday. No chair existed for long waits or older limbs.
The business owner would look at us with apologetic smiles as though weighing revenue over consideration for others. A female customer, ignoring our presence and patience, held the owner’s attention and fussed over color and other minutiae needed for her latest renovation project.
I said to the Elder, “I’m not in a rush. You’re welcome to go ahead of me if the others don’t mind.” I looked at the people behind me, my gaze steady and determined. Courtesy won without protest.
The Elder said, “I was here yesterday and she told me I couldn’t renew my warranty plan through her.”
“Well…she is only an agent. I doubt she can administer on behalf of the company,” I said. It seemed unlikely she would have the authority to look after a company matter.
The Elder ignored my rationale. She lowered her voice and said, “I told her I renewed it here last year. I saw the reminder on my calendar and made a point of getting down here immediately. I don’t want to pay another darned set-up fee. She treated me like I was just a confused old lady. I even told her that her husband looked after me last year.”
This Elder was obviously not “just a confused old lady”.
She continued, “You know, as we get older we have less energy. It’s maddening when it has to be wasted on proving you’re not stupid. So I realized I’d have to bring proof. I brought the receipt from last year.” She couldn’t hide a moment of smugness, “It has her husband’s signature on it.”
Finally, the owner grabbed an opening to disengage herself and came to the counter. I wanted to observe this Elder’s behaviour toward the business owner. I had silently adopted her as a role model.
My choice was a wise one. She was gentle, understanding, patient and forgiving. Though there was no apology for the previous day’s disagreement, the business woman copied her husband’s earlier handiwork with a trace of humbleness.
Encounters with elders like this woman are necessary. I no longer have parents to remind me that aging doesn’t need to express itself with vinegar. I need reminding that an exchange covered with honey, at any age, attracts good results.
Mom and Dad would be great examples, but they died 12 and 20 years ago respectively. I was born as they entered their forties so they were perpetual elders in my world. When they talked about old age, my ears closed in boredom. The forty year gap meant I was still invincible and had lots of answers. Mea culpa, only a loving parent could survive the abuse of a cocky offspring.
Yes, I need mentoring. I have questions to ask my parents about aging. Their “voices” do guide me at times when physical vulnerability is about to impair reason while I’m attempting some task. However, when life is not the one prescribed by me, I long to know how to cope with the feelings…dealing with invisibility, forgiving impoliteness, being talked over, having opinions brushed off, being treated like a bore, needing to frequently ask inarticulate people to repeat themselves.
In 1990, I was in my mid-forties; mom was in her eighties. I discovered a quote from B.F. Skinner, a highly respected behavioural scientist, who had just died at the age of 86. He’d been interviewed about aging.
“Mom,” I said, “tell me if Dr. Skinner describes what you experience as an older person.” I read aloud:
How does old age feel?
B.F.Skinner: Someone once said that if you want to know what it feels like, smear dirt on your glasses, stuff cotton in your ears, put on heavy shoes that are too big and wear gloves, then try to spend the day in a normal way. People my age all find it harder to do many of the things we like to do. Even so, we can design a world in which we can behave reasonably well in spite of our deficiencies. – (excerpt from “Growing Old Gracefully”)
Mom responded as though fresh air had flooded the room. “Perfect!” she declared.
“I cannot imagine…” I said.
“I know you can’t, darling. Aging is one of those things in life that no one can truly understand until they’re in the midst of it. Sometimes it feels like serial pain – to the heart, body and soul.”
“How do you deal with it?”
“Find the best way possible to keep a good attitude. Stay curious. Keep notes. Study. Read. You have a heads-up over me. You’ve paid attention to fitness and good food. I think you’ll have a much easier time than your father and me.”
As I write, I feel sad about my lack of empathy during those years: too often impatient, too quick to respond, too little time to listen, too busy to share, too fast to conclude, too diverted to phone. I make amends to my parents regularly. I believe in the concept a good friend taught me – that prayers can be answered retroactively. I feel forgiven.
Today, I cherish time with each elder I encounter, especially ones who model life like the Elder in the appliance store. I can choose from many excellent role models. Apparently, I won’t run out of them. The pool grows exponentially on my continent.
May I remember I am becoming one of them.