As a child, I was very close to my maternal grandmother. A former Navy WAVE and an airplane mechanic during WWII, my grandmother was unlike most of the other older women I knew. For one, she didn’t cook. My grandmother’s idea of a home-cooked meal was sliced potatoes and onions fried in butter, a reminder of her Polish-Russian childhood in Chicago. She was also fine with eating M&Ms for dinner or cracking pistachios while watching TV and smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table.
Hailing from the Windy City, she was a Cubs fan, but she’d root for the White Sox, too. As long as Chicago baseball was on TV, she had a favorite. Always embarrassed of her thinning hair, she wore a wig my whole life and only changed out of her slacks for a skirt when someone graduated or passed away.
When I was about ten years old, my grandma was diagnosed with bladder cancer. After her surgery she spent the rest of her life emptying a catheter bag every few hours. It was a good thing my grandma had such a robust sense of humor because her catheter schedule was unforgiving. Whenever she stood up from a game of cards to excuse herself so that she could empty her bag, she told us it was “Howdy Doody time,” a reference to the old black and white children’s television show. Her non-existent bladder was calling.
My grandmother always spoke to me as if I were an adult. She accepted that I was capable of understanding life experiences beyond my age. In keeping with her faith in my ability to comprehend the bigger things in life, she told me one truly amazing story.
During her cancer surgery, she’d gone through a near-death experience on the operating table. When I asked her what it was like, she folded her hands—she had the most lovely, slender fingers—and said, “All I can say is that you have nothing to be afraid of.”
“You mean of dying?” I said.
“Right. Of dying.”
What a gift to give a little girl.
Since starting my work with elders, I’ve discovered that the vulnerability of childhood can mirror the vulnerability of old age. Whereas childhood is imbued with the hope that accompanies a bolt of growth, development, and physical transformation, in our culture, the breakdown of the physical body is often seen as a tragedy.
There is not a clear social role for elders in the United States, especially if they are not a part of traditional family units, such as LGBTQ seniors or elders who live in isolation. As a culture, we have a lot of work to do when it comes to embracing our seniors as sources of wisdom and guidance, in matters both big and small.
I often ask myself how different our society would be if we respected our elders as living treasures. How much healthier would we be if we examined what it means to have a long life—even with its many triumphs and failures? What if we regarded old age as an honorable stepping-stone toward our transition from this world into death?
The sheer mass of knowledge our elders carry in their life experiences is deeply moving for me. And yet sometimes, even without our knowing it, we prevent older adults from having a voice. Or we diminish the power of their experiences by reducing them to being “cute” or “sweet.” Sometimes, I think, we are actually afraid of what they want to say to us.
It is becoming more and more important that we fight our tendency to ignore or shy away from the challenges of old age. After all, America is aging; we hear that announcement everywhere. As caregivers, we are in a position to learn so much from the people we serve. Also, in more plain language, our elders are going where we are going before us. They are pioneers of the human body and the human spirit. To mistakenly believe they are moving backward because they cannot participate in our fast-paced, hyper-driven culture is an insult to the journey they are walking. They are clued into some other rhythm of life that runs beneath the surface of all our lives if we are brave enough to examine it.
Many of the clients I work with live in what I would characterize as physically small orbits: they may rarely leave their homes, and their contact with the outside world is often very limited. No doubt, some elders prefer it this way. Plenty of my patients are happy being solitary. Others, however, long for community connection, conversations, and a chance to feel involved. Like many people, they want to contribute.
It is my experience that many elders long to care for us, to guide us younger folks toward living positive, healthy lives. Even though I am hired to take care of my patients, my patients also nourish me. They tell me to slow down. They advise me not to work too hard. And they are genuinely happy for me when I take time off or visit my family. They care about me.
One of my favorite pieces of advice came from an elder in her 90s. “You think you have a lot of pep, but you don’t! Don’t overdo it.” This kind of insight is commonly called “sage advice,” meaning it is earned through the wisdom of time and experience. Elders are living repositories of this hard-earned knowledge—intelligence that cannot be bought. If we listen, our grandmothers and grandfathers, our fathers and mothers, have so much love to give us. Sometimes that love comes from having learned something the hard way, maybe in a way they are not so proud of but are willing to share with us so that our paths become easier. What a blessing.
My grandmother died fifteen years ago but, thankfully, not before she told me about her experience on that operating table. What a gift to ease the heart and mind of a little girl who, like all of us, is worried about what death will bring. How could I ever repay her for sharing that insight with me, that amazing wisdom she garnered through her own body and mind? I will carry her words with me all my life.
Now, as I work with elders who are approaching death, I am reminded of my grandmother’s sage advice: don’t be afraid. What better gift can we give one another than the mercy of solace? And what better source of comfort and confidence than a kind soul who has walked the path before us?