Sometimes it takes stepping out into the world to understand how others live and co-exist. In my travels, one of my favorite countries to visit was in South Africa. I went to a small village just outside of Cape Town and had my first experience tasting African Beer. If you haven’t tried different types of cultural icons, I highly recommend it. As I tried the beer, I asked why the man who prepared it was so happy. It turned out that his wife had just given birth and it was a celebratory beer. I was really happy for the family. The entire village was celebrating. As I continued my time in the village, I also learned about the sense of community that the village has. One thing is that if you miss a funeral, then don’t expect others to come to yours. The villagers take this rule very seriously. After all, the elderly to them are revered. They are not to be mistreated.
I think this was a huge eye opener for me. In the states, there are way too many people who are cast into assisted living and nursing homes. Some are there by choice. Others are there because their families don’t know how to care for the elderly or can’t care for them. In some countries it’s against the law to not take care of family as they age. I think that information made me feel a little more connected to those who take care of their family. See, as a society, we’ve forgotten that the elderly were once young. They were the adventurers, the dreamers, the seekers, the pilots, the doctors, the nurses, the engineers, etc.. Their efforts changed us for the better. As they age and die off, the younger crowd gets older. Only then do they begin to understand what those before them had to deal with. They are forced at that point to walk in their shoes.
Over the years I’ve been exposed to many different worlds and cultures. When I was a child, my father was a nursing home administrator as well as a Lutheran Pastor. I used to go with him on occasion to the nursing home that he worked with. Even as a child, I understood that the men and women who were there were often placed there because their loved ones just couldn’t care for them anymore. It wasn’t that they were bad men and women because many of them weren’t. In some cases, they didn’t have family who could look after them. I used to sit and listen to their stories and they listened to me. I began to understand they had a life before they got old. They had families and friends they longed to see but couldn’t. Many of them felt hopeless. Many also wanted to make sure that they told their stories in the hopes that it might keep me from making some of the mistakes they made. It made me understand even then that being empathetic was something I could help others with.
I think that’s one of the reasons I still advocate for the elderly. When I hear the stories of elder abuse I get really pissed. These are the same folks who once upon a time lived their lives like many of us do. The only difference is that they got older and their bodies started falling apart. As we age, it gets easier to understand where they are coming from but the reality is that discrimination becomes a very real trait. In our youth, we don’t understand the discrimination but as our bodies feel the effects of time, we begin to see that if we don’t make provisions to create a market for ourselves that can produce income without the age barrier, that we will find ourself doomed to a market of younger folks who make many of us become disposable very quickly. I remember one woman as if she were still here. I was nine. Her name was Sarah and everyone called her “Sassy”. She was just that – sassy. Man I adored her. She was a former schoolteacher and grilled me constantly when she saw me about the boy I had a crush on. She also made sure to talk to me about school and how important it was to stay focused. She wanted me to make sure I kept my head on straight and didn’t lose my mind over “some fool”. She told me “I could be anything I wanted to be and don’t let anyone make me feel like I was second best.” She wanted me to understand that life was full of problems but it was up to me to be part of the solutions. She said everyone has a part in life to correct the problems in the path but that many people were so focused on the answers that they forgot to ask the questions. Her wisdom was something that I still remember to this day and that conversation happened in 1979. She died a year later. I was devastated. I didn’t want to get close to older people after that but eventually I did.
There was another patient at the nursing home my dad worked at that couldn’t see or speak well. He had a set of letters attached to his walker because he couldn’t really communicate without them. He would spell out what he needed. He had been a train conductor. One night after work, he had gone out drinking with a buddy. He was home for a small amount of time and wanted to celebrate his years of service. As they were partying, they were involved in a car accident. That accident caused him tremendous pain. It took most of his sight and his voice. He could spell though. He used to communicate very well with that board. I thought the world of him. When my dad left the job, I was sad to leave the residents behind. They had given me gifts that I would cherish for a lifetime. They gave me the insight to understand life was precious but it wasn’t guaranteed.
You would think that with all the knowledge that they equipped me with that I wouldn’t have made the mistakes I did in my life. Well guess what? I went through my rebellious years. I thought I could do whatever I wanted with no repercussions. I was wrong. I didn’t listen to the warnings they heeded. I married the wrong man, tried to have a family and my body wouldn’t let me, took the wrong types of jobs that were always dead end and didn’t go back to school until my thirties to fix a lot of what I screwed up. And you know what? I’m really glad that I didn’t listen. I never would have appreciated those folks if I hadn’t had the school of hard knocks to show me what they tried to teach me. I wouldn’t have appreciated the time, the love, the stories that they gave me if I hadn’t had time to reminisce about the past.
I don’t want to make myself old before my time but I do relish every opportunity now to learn from the best. I’ve also learned that if I listen a lot more than talk I can learn even more if I let myself. Instead of casting our seniors aside, let’s find ways to utilize their knowledge and skills more. Let’s invite them to speak and to partake with us so that we can learn the stories, the traditions, and the tools that we need in order to keep things from being lost. Yes, there are some things that don’t need to stick around. By that I mean we don’t need the old guard of racism, slavery, discriminatory issues to linger. There are things that are becoming lost to us. Many jobs that were once done by hand have become automated and only folks who are older generally have the knowledge. If our society is ever wiped of technology, we need to be able to know how to survive and we can’t do that if we aren’t willing to learn.
I challenge each of you to get to know someone that is older that you might learn from. Sometimes the greatest teachers we have is each other. The question then becomes are we willing to be taught by folks society is starting to forget? I’m willing to learn. I hope you are too.