There was a reason I loved my job in high school, when I served as an evening receptionist for a St. Louis nursing home. A reason I was thrilled when the recreations director let me create and run summer activities for the residents. A reason I tried twice—although somewhat unsuccessfully—to serve as a nurse’s aide during college. And it wasn’t altruism.
During and after college, the reason I rode the Greyhound bus, many times, from Minneapolis to Nashwauk, Minnesota—a four-hour ride—to visit my great uncle was not because he needed my help. My uncle Ben—married first to my great aunt and then to her sister, my grandmother—was a brilliant, ninety-something lawyer with an amazing memory and a head for details . . . a man blinded at age four by illness, who one day spent several hours explaining to me exactly how and why the US got into two world wars. . . . a man who had run every other lawyer out of town since he had arrived there in his thirties.
In the 1990s I didn’t tape a two-hour interview with my grandfather, who was slipping into dementia, so that my family would appreciate me; that was over twenty-five years ago and they still haven’t heard the tape. And I didn’t spend eighteen years writing about women over eighty in order to help them come to grips with the past. A few of them thanked me for giving them a chance to work through painful memories, but that wasn’t my goal.
And now, I don’t speak publicly about the close relationships I had with all those people because I want to feel good about myself—I talk about my friends because of what I personally received and gained as a result of knowing them. In spite of the ways my culture encourages me to pity my elders—to see them as victims or think of their forgetfulness as a return to childhood—and in spite of the products and services being pushed at my generation to help us “feel younger,” I really don’t want to think of my elders—or myself—that way.
Here’s the thing: For decades, I’ve pursued people in their eighties and nineties because I’ve treasured what I learned. I’ve loved their stories and their wisdom and their calm reactions to what has felt like calamity in my own life. I’ve had fun spending time with them. . .I’ve depended on their guidance. I still do.
Today I’m wondering what would happen if we, as a culture, acknowledged what our elders have to offer and actually pursued them. What if we brought conversations with the most experienced among us into our high school and college classrooms? Into the workplace? After all, many of them still work within their professions—I know several faculty physicians in their eighties. I also know quite a few octogenarians, retired or not, who LIKE this stage of life. Many would even be gracious—and patient—enough to answer our questions. Who knows—maybe we’d make better decisions.
I know I have.
Sadie Anton- Community Treasure
At 102, this wise woman was still serving patrons at her community’s annual dinners.