Aging With Grace, P-l-e-a-s-e!

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Keep your Mind Active

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.

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The observed observing.

“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.

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31 thoughts on “Aging With Grace, P-l-e-a-s-e!

  1. Absolutely wonderful. I say this all the time, especially when dealing with the old people who are in my care. i have a terrible memory but the old codger and Johns mum have fantastic ones. So they remind me of all the things I need to do. i am their hands but I have no need to be their minds, they are like whips. I said to the old Codger the other day, you are 95, you are old enough to decide what you want to do. He chuffed of course. Huffed and chuffed. They try to make him stay home and behave like an old person should.. yeah right i hear him say. I really really liked this piece, thank you for writing it.. c

    • The Canadian artist Robert Bateman, now 83, is a neighbour as much as a highly respected environmentalist. He spoke at our Retired Business Professionals club last year. He’s always on the go. He tells his contemporaries to stay in shape because, “We’re going to be the ones pushing our grandchildren around.”

      Celi, you beautiful soul, keep at the crossword and sudoku puzzles. Except you’re so busy living life that you build memories faster than you can file them! XO

      • both my mother in law and the old codger are terrors for the crosswords, they both do two a day.. John does them too. but the american ones are so full of things i don’t get, I really should get the NZ ones on the internet.. but you are right.. WHEN would I do them, down time for me is reading in bed, which is what i am about to do.. ni ni.. c

    • So true, Charles. Even the grouches have something to teach us…even if it’s how to put the vinegar bottle back in the cupboard. Hope you are well. Hard to believe there’s a drought in your part of the world. Canada has some snow if you folks would like some.

  2. Oh boy can I relate to being the child of over the hil parents! I was terribly arrogant to my mother. And as I approach that “elder” age…crap, approach? I’m there! I’m having a really hard time getting my head around it. I really don’t feel it at all yet. I’m still an arrogant bitch. However, I do love watching the quiet calm and determination of my elders now. It will be interesting to see how we baby-boomers negotiate this stage of our lives.

    • I had to admit I was fighting something, Linda. Age? Being like my parents? Vulnerability? What was I resisting, I wondered. I would find myself bored with “elder humour”. Last week, I shook my head at the thought of doing “this” for another 20 or 25 years; yet felt disinterested in initiating some project of ‘great import’.

      Seems it was arrogance for me, too. God grief, I’m not unique! A hour, a day, a year affects my genes too?! I realize that going without meditation is dangerous for my attitude. I’ve been diverted by the pain of a torn muscle between two ribs and it confirms my peace needs daily watering.

      • Well, “elder humour” doesn’t strike me as very humorous. I find it full of self pity and vanity. And I do become more like my mother each year. 😮

        Take care of your torn muscle. Hopefully a hot soak might float your peace?

  3. Excellent observations, Amy, supporting my experience of growing older. My adult children can be thoughtless and, whenever they are, I am reminded of how impatient I used to get with my mother. I silently apologise to her, every time I feel indignant at the way they treat me, so I’m very grateful to read that prayers can be answered retrospectively. Yes, I’d love to be able to ask her advice, but I can just picture her sardonic smile, as she answers ~ the same smile I give my daughter, when she complains about the behaviour of my grandsons.
    In my working life. I specialised in Care for the Elderly, and one of the exercises we carried out with front~line staff (and the Big Bosses, responsible for allocating budgets) was to hamper them as per the conditions described by B F Skinner, to raise their awareness of the challenges our clients had to face. It enhanced their understanding (and secured the extra funding we were requesting for innovative improvements on our Sheltered schemes.)
    Martin and I used to refer to certain items in a particular way ~ ‘the old persons V~shaped pillow’, ‘old persons elasticated waistbands… tartan slippers…magnifying mirror’ etc. Then we realised that we’re perceived as elder ourselves ~ so we dropped the ‘old’ and just call them ‘the persons pillow’ etc! You have to laugh ~ the alternative is way too depressing!
    Another great post, with lots of food for thought, my dear….friend! 😉

    • Yes, I’m very conscious of the inner dialogue – and to what contemporaries say. My attempt to accept without “resigning to” is usually forefront in my mind. Then I’ll take off to Yoga class and see younger people having a struggle and it’s an encouragement. It’s not a competition – it is checking my baseline. But I do know that until we meet those nanoseconds of minute messages from others – so foreign to younger years and so hard to understand – we don’t understand what aging is for others. Oddly enough, even someone younger trying to convince themselves of understanding is a lump to swallow – a reminder of going this alone.

      So, Jacqueline, since no one else is going to do this aging thing for me, best I suit up and show up. With grace and dignity! Come hell or high water! 😀

      (I know I’m in good company when I read comments from readers like you!)

    • There’s a lot of weight put on youth – as you know, Kim, the media has brainwashed us as a society. It’s my understanding that other nations/cultures that respect and honour their elders have raised their children to do so. They really do practice the philosophy that “it takes a village”.

      We can do our part by not being like the rest of the world. I marvel at the reception I get when I take time to smile at and speak to an older person. They deserve so much more than being put on some shelf in our hearts/minds. Hell, do we even have a Senior’s Day? I haven’t heard of one…

  4. That is so lovely, souldipper. A wonderful reminder to pay attention. I have the gift of living with my 89 year old mother and she is teaching me a lot about hanging on to a sense of humor and finding joy in simple things. Most of all – I’m seeing the value and compassion that comes with patience. I am so very lucky.

  5. I’ve been reading old journals and now I don’t just think I’m becoming my Mother, I know I am. I have always fought that notion because I do not admire her values. Well not all of them anyway.

    One I need help with reconfiguring is her upbringing of us six kids and the terrible job she did. But she did try to change some of that in her old age and one of the things I do forgive her is that she held no grudges. I wish I could say the same for some of our young folks. She forgave easily. And that is a value I treasure and hope to pass on. I think I have for my sons but if only I could for my step children! Life is just too short for holding petty grudges. 🙂

    • Yes, good for your mom, Clarbojahn. And for your appreciation of her ability to forgive.

      Forgiveness comes more easily when I remember that forgiving the act does not mean I condone it. I can now dislike the deed without disliking the person – though that can take a bit of time and cooling off.

      My mom used to say that she was not good “mother material”. There was no such thing as reliable birth control in her child-bearing years, of course, so she had to just deal with having children…while teaching school and raising a family with dad away most of the time. My older siblings seem to attest to her statement. Some of them claim they had a different mother than me. I think Mom was tired of raising kids by the time I came along. She used to say, “Amy raised herself”. At first when I heard her say that, I thought it was “cool”. But as I matured I began to resent it. I’d think of how I went to school, babysat for neighbours, worked part-time selling shoes and did chores at home while mom agonized her way through menopause.

      As time went on, I began seeing all the fabulous stuff she gave me that my friends didn’t have: eg – trust to make good decisions, right to have input to decisions that affected me, respect for my opinions about life, time to see things for myself, etc. She didn’t criticize – only asked very good questions that brought some insight and clarity for me.

      Whether my mom was a good mother or not…well, depends on which sibling you ask. I loved her, respected her and wouldn’t have traded her for any other Mom!

      • Thanks, Souldipper. Same here. It depends on who you ask of us six kids what kind of mother they had. I had the strict mom who made me earn my own school supplies and pocket money with a paper route at age nine and then at eleven start babysitting. I never had books read to me. But ask my baby sister seven years younger and she’ll tell of a totally different mom. 🙂

  6. This is a wonderful post Amy Auntie. “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.” – This line describes the whole thought you want to share with this post in a beautiful way. I am always to four of my relatives, who are now aging. I do n’t see much of a chance in them, except now they have less energy and physical strength; but their brains and hearts are still same. They still make those hours I spend with them special with their love and care; and they still give me a new lesson about life with their experience and intelligence. 🙂

    • The beauty, Arindam, is that you appreciate them – you see that they still have all sorts of ability to give, share, love and be with you. I take my hat off to you, my friend. I see so many people in such a hurry and not having time for anything but their task and cell phones.

      Your elders are very blessed indeed to have you!

  7. You had me at “This Elder was obviously not “just a confused old lady”. Wonderful post! I could feel your curiosity in what you could learn from her, your confidence that she was about to teach you something and your admiration for how she handled the scene.
    My beautiful mother, 87 soon to be 88 next month, comments on her invisibility in the ways you detail above. I think I will bring up your post on the computer when I visit her to read BF Skinner’s remarks and ask her what she thinks. I remember my father relating once, that in his workplace cafeteria, as he was eating at a table, first one person asked for a chair no one was sitting in, then another, then another, until he found himself sitting at the table alone and no hope of company as all the chairs were taken. First, I thought, “the rudeness”, then I thought “how dare they”. That was one time my usually gregarious and influential father told such a story of feeling invisible. I’ll never forget his telling it.
    This is an important and well written post, Amy.

    • That’s a perfect description, Georgette! That’s the sting of invisibility. It’s so subtle. What your father experienced can be done with such care-less-ness and insensitivity that it’s a double whammy having to observe such thoughtlessness. Imagine the surprise if elders spoke up and expressed their feelings. Trouble is, they are too polite to mention it. (honey vs vinegar?)

      There’s a silent perception that the elderly don’t mind being invisible. Hah! What a bunch of teachable moments we let pass when we stay silent. It’s easy to speak up when I see something being done to an older person. However, when it’s done to me, it seems defensive and bitchy to speak up so I usually join the muzzled crowd. But it hurts.

      I hope your mom takes comfort that people just may understand! The full interview – linked in the post – is a help to one and all as we head for the more delicate decades.

  8. This is such a touching experience, Amy, to meet the challenges of aging with equanimity is a gift I ask for…not always easy for me thanks to certain medications…but then, they have allowed me to age. My mom has been a beautiful role model for me–so full of gratitude and a positive spirit, even as her dementia progresses. God knows, I’ve experienced the opposite in my work. Thanks for sharing this lovely lady with us.

  9. Hi Amy,

    As always a great post.

    What resonated with me was this bit of the elder’s conversation with you, ” “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.” Would it not be wonderful if this perspective was to be held by us when we are younger? I say this with all humility as I remain aware of all the unnecessary and unwarranted complications I have created in life as I used energy to ‘cover up’ and ‘ win at any cost’, even when in my heart of hearts I knew it was only to pamper my ego.

    Cheers

    Shakti

    • When I would remember to get to the bottom of my “busyness”, its intensity was so often self imposed. I’d have such a picnic of self-importance at times. Thankfully I did find it quite humourous on occasion so gave myself a good laugh. Since retirement, it’s a blessing to be freed somewhat of deadlines imposed by other demands/people. Now the energy thieves are more exposed and obvious to me.

  10. Hi Amy – I know I’m miles behind and don’t come past too often .. I just loved this post. I learnt from my father’s elder brother, who managed to adapt, and to their brother-in-law (the uncle I looked after) and also to my mother .. I was so so lucky and so appreciative of their ability to cope … I hope sincerely that I’ve absorbed those processes … and have taken on board what I can and cannot do …

    Big hugs – Hilary

    • Hi Hilary…I adore your jaunty hat! Yes, it looks as though you and I will have the opportunity of walking the “absorptions” together. Let’s keep our sweetness and humour!

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