This is the first in an occasional series I will be working on called, Aging Parents. This is where my head and heart are at right now, as my family works to help my Dad cope with his own aging.
I used to work in a high rise office in downtown Chicago during my early and mid-20s. When I got my first apartment, I would take the bus to get there or do other errands around town. I was always struck, feeling literal pangs in my heart, when an older adult would slowly and carefully and slowly and carefully and slowly and carefully get on the bus and look for a seat. Almost always they carried some sort of bag with them. If I was near the front I would pop up to offer my seat, knowing too many others would not, and cursing those young and healthy jerks inside my head.
Old age was hard. Seeing it made me sad. It was difficult to imagine things like buying groceries or mailing a letter as a struggle, but after seeing that reality every day for the older folks in my neighborhood I no longer had to imagine, because I saw their challenges. And then, just a few years later, on the cusp of finishing my graduate program in social work and being saddled with BUCKETS of student loan debt, the first job offer I got was working with older adults.
I took it. My fear of impending loan payments was much higher than my fear of older adults.
Turns out, I loved it. Loved it. And I was good at it. My little unwrinkled, idealistic 29 year old self was tasked with the work of helping older adults in a fancy, posh retirement community cope with the difficulties and losses of aging. The thing about aging is that nothing can protect you from it. Sure, money can insulate you some and keep you from hard labor, but if we are lucky enough, we all get older. Those dollars and cents won’t protect anyone.
My work felt like a calling to me. Listening and helping and empathizing were all in my wheelhouse. It didn’t hurt that my own vernacular matched that of my 80 and 90 year old clients, either, what with all the “swells” and “good eggs” that my friends mocked my use of. Working with older adults and their families was a privilege that I remember fondly.
There was the “spinster twin” — her language, not mine — who found herself utterly lost and helpless after her other spinster twin died. There was the brilliant physicist whose brain was fading with dementia. There was the kind hearted widower who kept a framed photo of his wife at the kitchen table so he could still eat breakfast with his gal every day. There was the never married career woman, still as proud at 85 as she was at 45, who struggled hard every day to look lovely in her pearls and fine clothing, but wept with me each week because no one understood how hard that had become for her.
Remembering these folks, these people that somehow trusted me with their sorrows and pain and secrets, has me weeping. My tears are for me as much as for them today. In the past two months, my family has watched the roaring lion that is my father, my Da, age in rapid fashion. It is breaking my heart. It is breaking his heart. It is breaking all the hearts.
Old age is not for sissies.
That was the message that hung on my office wall in needlepoint form that I found at a thrift store during those years I worked with older adults. And dagnabbit if I can’t find it now, as I want to gift it to my father. I stopped working with older adults almost eight years ago now, but the truth of those pithy words stayed with me. To be an independent, strong, functioning person and then lose those capacities for whatever reason is not, in fact, for sissies. You need the strength of steel to age. You need the strength of Goliath and Davey combined to wake up day after day after day when your world, because of your aging, shrinks beyond recognition.
As a 45 year old with much more experience under my belt, I know now that those pangs I felt watching older adults struggle on the bus was pity. I pitied them. Pffft. I had no freaking idea of the strength and courage and perseverance I was witnessing.
When you see an older adult, if you are lucky enough to have some in your life, try hard not to pity them. Instead, see them as the strong humans they are. Tell them you honor and appreciate their strength and courage. They need that and they’ve certainly earned it.