I work very part time at the front desk of an Assisted living, although I use the word “work” very loosely because I enjoy it that much. Everyone needs a sense of purpose and value, and this happens to be mine. Working the front desk gives me a chance to interact with people who are old and for one reason or another, cannot live alone at home anymore. I love it! I love the conversations that take place and how their personalities emerge as I get to know each one a little better.
In America, being old is a mixed bag for most. We all want to live a good long life, but we think of it in terms of living independently, having enough money, and being in good health. Most of us will eventually have health issues and some of us will need assistance.
One day, an older ex-musician rolled up to the desk in a wheel chair. He asked me if I could help him figure out a financial equation. I said,
“Sure…if I can. What do you need help with?
He said, “Well, I just sold my house for $$$$$$$$$$. How long will that money allow me to live here?”
I was taken aback because he is in his mid 70’s…So, I asked him how much he paid for rent and divided that into the house sale amount.
I said “6 1/2 years.”
Because he looked so deflated, I then said, “Wait a minute you must have social security, right?”
He nodded, and told me the amount. So I added that to the equation and then I said “Looks like 9 years now and we have not taken into account the interest on your money”. (Also did not take into account the usual annual price hike in rent, but did not want to mention that).
He held eye contact with me for a long moment, nodded his head again, then rolled away down the hall to his Apartment. I felt his fear.
Working a few hours a week at this place has given me great insight into what a lot of people deal with in old age. There are many who are content here. The staff is very good and very good to the residents. They have good meals and planned activities for those who are interested. Some have devoted family members which makes all the difference for a residents sense of self worth. Its a very nice place to live. However, there are a number of them who are just doing their best to “make the best” of living so long.
Courage comes in all forms. We think of it when we watch people go off to war or dare devils performing dangerous stunts. We see it in people who have been given a terminal diagnosis. We see it when someone loses someone who was very dear to them and now they have to go forward in life without them. To live this life in this world takes a LOT of courage.
It also takes a lot of courage to live in old age. You find yourself dealing with the loss of friends and family who have died. You deal with the indignities of a failing body or a failing mind. You put on a happy face when you feel it is expected even though you may not be the least bit happy because you know that people avoid sour old people. If you had children, they are now grown and enjoying their own adult lives, which in this day and age often means living far away in a distant place with calendars full of comings and goings and you get a very small percentage of their time (if you are one of the lucky ones) and you smile broadly when they come to see you so they will come again.
Old age for some people is no different than their previous ages other than the understandable slowing down as they reach their 80’s, 90’s and even 100’s. These people are living independently and in reasonably good health and have enough money to see them through to the end. But, the majority of our elderly are living lives that demand courage and tenacity and fortitude.
I see courage in these people every single day as they live their lives knowing that they are on the other side of the hill. Most of them love to engage with other people in their surroundings by having a good laugh, by sharing a tidbit of news, and by encouraging someone who needs a bit of a psychic lift on any given day. A lot of them will be social during meal time but then will go back to their apartments where they feel in control of their surroundings, where they can nap, read, and reflect and do whatever suits them.
Inside these aging bodies resides the ageless spirit and personality of who they have always been. Our spirits never age because our inner spirits or souls are timeless and eternal. Our personalities of our childhood are the same personalities now…just in more restrictive environments.
If you want to do something today to make a difference in this world, take a minute to visit with an older person. Smile at them. Tell them to have a good day. Look them in the eyes and let them know they are not invisible to you as they so often are in this world to others. Let them feel seen and heard. Let them feel as if they matter, if only for that one moment. Shake their hand in greeting. Help them cross the street. Offer your arm as they step off a curb. It will make them feel good and it will make you feel even better!
God bless the elderly. They are the true courageous soldiers in this often times challenging life that complicates our journey! It is in them that I see living breathing older “profiles in courage” in a very different way from in the book that bears its name!