Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This I Believe

I believe in learning about growing old by meeting people who are old already. In the late 1970s I worked at a small nursing home. Those residents show up in my dreams. Most of them were at least three times my age. Now, I never encounter anyone even twice my age.

For three decades I've continued to seek relationships with the elderly. They are people who have gone from the robust vigor of youth and middle age to the ever smaller range of movement that accompanies growing old. But they were old when I met them and I never knew them before. That's part of the wonder of relationships: anything that happened before we knew each other is slightly mysterious and can never be brought completely into focus.

I met a man named Herb Feitler while on a trip to visit my grandmother thirty years ago. Herb and his wife Hannah were old friends of hers. He and I spent the better part of a day together, going to flea markets and into the desert communities around Palm Springs where they all spent the winters. Driving around with this guy wearing a wrinkled fishing hat at the wheel of his Oldsmobile, seemed to me, then in my early twenties, like the height of exotica. Later I realized what made the experience so novel. He was the first old person I spent time with who wasn't in my family. I never knew him before, and he never knew me. We had no preexisting dynamic between us and we responded to one another like any two people enjoying each other's company.

Years later I saw a change take place in my father. Having suffered a stroke, he started going to an adult day center. No longer only around people who viewed what had befallen him as tragic, he met a new group of people who never knew him before. They understood that the way he was now - needing assistance when he walked, speaking quietly - was not the way he always had been. They simply accepted him as he was. This was liberating for him. He had needed new friends, he was meeting new people. I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was more engaged in life.

Even with all the time I’ve been doing this it’s hard to give an easy description of what I’ve learned. It’s a mistake to think the elderly have secrets to impart. the most valuable things I’ve gotten from them has been simply to establish relationships with them, getting to know them in the moment, rather than through often told tales from their past. Saving a puppy from a burning building makes for a decidedly exciting narrative, but it can overshadow the human being who spent most of their life not rescuing canines from flames, but the thousands of little things we do. An easy tag line can be hung on any of us by the extraordinary things we do, but it’s the ordinary things that make for the deeper portrait.

Life is filled with opportunities, the chance to experience something new. As I grow old, I know issues that were of great concern to me at one time will no longer matter. It will be a new vantage point from which to consider everything that happens to and around me. I believe all of my elderly friends have shown me that having something new happen, no matter how small, is what makes for a healthy day, no matter how many days may be left.

- David Greenberger

(This was first aired as part of the "This I Believe" series on NPR's Morning Edition, April 2007)


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