Not Awkward with Old People!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated but I swear I’m writing constantly. What’s on my mind and in my word documents?

I’m working at the in-house restaurant of a retirement home. And I love it. Using incredible tact in my interview, my future boss asked, “Do you see yourself being able to interact well with an aging clientele?” And I burst out, “Oh yes! I love old people!”

I think old people are shockingly beautiful. If you stand in the dining room and are able to, for even just a moment, remove your aggressively-bred-anti-aging-lens, you will encounter a room full of people so achingly distinct, so carefully shaped and formed by life, who are maneuvering through constant change and struggle. It’s art! Visual, theatrical, bold, messy, breathing art. To use a comparison made thousands of times before, it’s not unlike watching babies grow, discovering their new bodies and their world. But old folks seem more tangible to me. They have power and experience to express and utilize. Open your eyes! You’ll see it painted on their faces, written into their actions. Open your ears! They’ll relate their history and tell you what comes next (even if you don’t want them to). Open your hands! They’ll grab them and hold them close.

Lately, I keep finding myself inside of subtly magic moments. Like discovering that sweet little Dr. F is actually a psychologist who was trained by none other than Sigmund Freud. Or in the moments when Mrs. P tells her guests that I’m her favorite as I walk away, thinking that I can’t hear her. Or the night I received two marriage proposals from separate residents. Or  that time I shuttled 4 walkers (at once!) down a hallway, while wearing a tuxedo, as live big-band music floated through the room. I come home everyday with a plethora of new stories.

The residents themselves have lifetimes of amazing stories. And I’m opening my eyes to a gift of exceptional worth: I’ve been given a front row seat to the most fundamental human experience there is. Aging and dying are things we will all experience eventually, every single person we love will experience them. You are actually going through them right now. It’s the singular, utterly inescapable, transcendent adventure.

A few weeks of experience and a few hours of research have revealed a few key things:

  • I’m starting to see that there is a real misunderstanding of what the process of aging involves, coupled with a tragic lack of empathy.
  • As the baby boomer generation enters old age, they will dominate 19 percent of the population by the year 2030 (more than our Black, Hispanic, or Immigrant populations). Given the fact that most of us will join that percentage eventually, I find it unbelievable they we aren’t more curious. In fact, we are actively denying it…
  • Our culture is steadfastly committed to anti-aging in its advertising, spending, and propaganda. Open a magazine, look at the television: we are in a constant fight against our natural state (a deliciously wrinkly, wizened, soulful state). Innundated with the message that aging is negative (though undeniably inevitable), Americans spend 115 billion dollars a year on anti-aging (which could pay for the healthcare costs of roughly 8,000,000 seniors)

I look forward to work every day. Ranging from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, each resident shares a common thread of beauty and startling familiarity. I look at my new friends and see myself reflected back, both powerfully original and the everyman: a desire to be wanted, anxiety about finding the right answers, embarrassment in mistakes, pleasure in simple joys, questions about the future, reflection about what’s passed, frustration, heartache, and a deep love of good desserts (old people always say Yes! to dessert). It’s the same in any language and at any age. The heartbeat of their story sounds the same as mine, and I feel compelled to tell it. So here’s what I want, a present if you will: an opinion, a perspective, an experience. I want stories. Yours or your loved one’s. Talk to me about the most amazing old person you know, or ask if they’ll talk to me.

It’ll be like Christmas. We’ll put twinkly lights on every walker.

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One thought on “Not Awkward with Old People!

  1. Sarajane Alverson says:

    Wow. Beautiful, Jess (and Yes to good desserts!). The numbers regarding anti-aging products (versus healthcare costs) are staggering and, frankly, embarrassing.
    I will think on your request and think about some fantastic old(er) people I know.

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