The “Gold in” Years

The Golden Years


I used to work at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. As staff and patients at big city hospitals well know, parking in a hospital lot can try one’s patience. You are always in a rush and there is never a convenient space to park. One morning, after being fortunate in my search and walking towards the parking lot exit, I saw a most delightful vignette: An elderly lady in a large Cadillac, having patiently waited for a driver to pull out from his spot, was horrified to see a young kid in a red sports car zip into “her” spot. When she saw that he had knowingly cut her off, she became irate. “Young man, don’t you have any conscience?”, she yelled as he walked away from his sports car. Without pausing, the youth called back over his shoulder, “Lady, it’s a tough world. That’s what I get for being young and fast.” Time stood still for an eternal moment, then to my astonishment, the Cadillac surged forward and smashed into the red sports car. The elderly lady calmly backed away from the wreck and, as the youth looked on drop‑jawed, she rammed again, totaling his car. This exchange alone would have made my morning, but the lady had class and as she calmly drove off, she informed the startled kid, “That’s what I get for being old and rich.” Well, as the echoes of her substantial engine and her incontrovertible words dissipated through the parking garage, the rude kid and I stared at each other as if to confirm the reality of what we both witnessed. When we recovered from the shock, he asked me, “Hey, man. Did you get her license plate?”  Barely containing my delight, I confessed that I had been too surprised to even look. “Yeah,” he muttered as he approached his now considerably slowed down sports car, “me too”.

 

That incident reaffirmed my faith in the maturation process. Given enough time together, that is, with a little inter‑generational help, most of us can learn how to behave with respect and consideration towards others. The lady had class. She knew how she should be treated and, based on her patience in having waited for “her” spot, was prepared to treat others with respect. However, when mistreated, she demonstrated an endangered virtue of standing up for herself. She was not afraid of action. She expressed herself with clarity and in a highly effective manner. (I bet the kid thought twice about how to behave with others after that encounter).

 

Who are the elderly anyway. It often has little to do with actual age and more to do with attitude. For example, the person referred to as the “oldest living graduate” of my  alma mater is only 70. He is so named because of his death‑like way of approaching life. Conservative to the point of coma. Conversely, we all know people who seem to grow younger each year as they continue to appreciate life fully.

 

My grandmother is almost 100. Recently she was walking down a street paying only passing interest to the items in the display windows when she happened to notice on ancient woman in one of the windows. She recounted later to me: “I was interested to see such an old woman. My first thought was that I would like to meet her. Then I realized that I was looking at my reflection. It shocked me!” You see, my grandmother (and probably your’s too) doesn’t think of herself as old and thus she doesn’t recognize that aspect of her being.

 

Joy, at 80, has just completed a teacher‑training course a form of movement therapy called the Feldenkreise method.

The last time she visited our home, she was wearing a drop‑dead black leather suit and happened to interrupt my remodeling efforts on a barn. I had a key post jacked up to replace a sill when the post buckled out threatening to collapse the entire side of the post and beam structure. She arrived just in time to note all this and raced in beside me whereupon she put a shoulder to the post and held it until I could reinforce the wall. She saved the day and certainly did not consider herself “elderly” then or now!

 

A friend in his 70’s who had worked for Weirhouser all his life was helping me clear land when a younger man greeted him with a friendly: “You look like a real old lumberjack.” After a pause, Olie responded: “I’m not so old.” but everyone knew that the adjective referred to Olie’s obvious ability rather age. It denoted experiential rather than chronological age. Whether it was that initial off‑hand comment or his sense of pride and pleasure he took in his work, Olie left the rest of the younger crew panting in his wake that day.

 

As you can tell, I am a fan of the elderly. They have taught me a tremendous amount and are consistently full of surprises. Old wives tales comprise some of my best therapeutic tools when all else fails. Certainly I am waxing romantic and my generalities do not apply to abusive, irresponsible, angry or senile old people. However, those folks aside, anyone over 70 is not only a survivor (to their credit. Will you live that long?) but in ways better appreciated by cultures of oral tradition, these elders are guardians of great treasures.

 

However, human value is a matter of relationship and to a significant degree, just as the musician needs an  audience, so too elderly folks need people interested in their life’s lessons.

 

What’s wrong with kids today? A lot. “Like always.” you say? Perhaps not. A new handicap is crippling today’s youth. They suffer from a deficiency of meaningful relationship with those who have come before and negotiated life successfully. They don’t spend enough time with their grandparents. TV has made relationships in general, and with grandparents in particular, obsolete.

 

Kids can have no real appreciation of the present or future unless they experience (not learn about, but experience) the past. The kids who dreams of Star Wars space travel has a richer fantasy if he has spent an evening on grandpa’s lap hearing about life when there were no airplanes. In the contrast is the drama. Seeing what we have accomplished enriches the imagination far more than abstract fantasy or Hollywood.

 

Goethe wrote: “Treat people like you want them to become and you help them grow into what they are capable of becoming.” So, turn off the TV. Say “Hello in there”. Make a friend of a person who appears to old to befriend. Remember, you don’t know how it happened that you got as old as you are. Neither do they. We’re all kids. However, next time you compete for a parking space, play it safe and pick on someone your own age.

 

To Your Health

 

Bradford S. Weeks, M.D. © 1992

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