Honoring the Elderly
Last weekend, my wife and I visited our children in the wilds of Brooklyn, N.Y. While we wish they lived closer, we love visiting them. I spent my teenage years in New York City, so I always love to return to my childhood haunts. A visit to New York is a cultural cornucopia too--museums, theatre, and just walking around with eyes wide open.
A significant portion of our trip was spent visiting several elderly adults. I have two lifelong family friends who still live in Manhattan. Ruth is 90 years old, and I have known her and her family for my entire life. Dorothy, another lifetime family friend, won't tell me how old she is--"I don't want to be defined by my age" she says. But I know that she is 92 years old. She received her PhD in musicology in her 60's and is now working on her third book on women composers. She was also a concert pianist, and she still organizes classical music concerts in New York. Wow!
These women are two of my mother's best friends, and they have always been important to me. Ruth, in many ways, saved my life when my parents were getting divorced. Both of my parents were absorbed in their personal dramas at that time. She let me stay with her whenever I wanted to get away from my family, with no questions asked. "Just clean up after yourself--and I don't want to hear anything negative from you about your mother," she quipped. I spent many weekends at her apartment in Manhattan. Her home was my sanctuary during hard times.
These are “amazing ladies" and they are a models for aging. I always spend several hours with them whenever I go to New York. They both live alone--(all the men die much earlier, not a very comforting thought for me!).
Yes, they have slowed down, but they still have a passion for life. Dorothy is passionate about educating the public about women composers--she will spend hours telling you about the beautiful music of Clara Schumann. But this visit, she tells me that she is lonely. “I don't have so many friends" she says. Her family lives far away. She is thankful for my visit. She and her husband, when he was alive, were very important to me.
Ruth has lung disease and diabetes. "I can only walk a few blocks these days--but can you believe it, there are several people in my building that look out for me!" she says proudly. "I can't imagine why they are so kind to me, I barely know them," she remarks. But I can imagine why. Her neighbors see that she is an older adult in need. She leaves with me to walk to the local swimming pool--a long walk for her. She remarks-- "Every day is an adventure for me. I have to think about everything I am going to do--even getting up from my chair takes planning!" I can see her basking in the glow of our visit.
We live in a culture of youth, yet we are in the middle of a 90-year-old-plus population explosion! (A close friend, who met us in NY, was visiting his 100 year old aunt!) It is so easy for the very old to feel marginalized and disconnected from the world around them. They can feel irrelevant as the world turns, but no longer turns around them. Frail, and slowed down, they struggle to master smart phones, email and the internet. It is easy for them to feel left out of life--even if they are members of the "amazing ladies" club!
I am very pleased that my young adult children want to visit their elderly relatives--and to offer them help when they can. As a parent, this makes me feel successful. They have internalized the values that I hold dear.
Visiting the elderly, in most spiritual traditions, is considered a religious obligation. It is an important part of our connection to each other. Younger people have a responsibility to both help our elders (like Ruth's neighbors who bring her food and flowers) and to spend time with them. In addition to bringing needed companionship and fellowship to our aging friends and relatives, we have the opportunity to learn from their long life's experience.
But there is another good reason to visit the aging. Someday, if we are lucky, we will be old. Our children will remember how we visited our older friends, even when it wasn't convenient for us. And when we are old, and alone, they will come and patiently spend an afternoon with us, listening to our stories that they have heard before. We will delight in their young faces and bask in the glow of their love.
Share your stories of the older adults in your life!