Even though we view ourselves in consistent ways that often do not involve seeing ourselves as participants in the aging process, time marches on and all of us get older with each passing day. With any luck at all, some of us will live to old age, while others of us will live to become “the oldest old” (defined as 85 years old and older). Given the realities of life and the aging process that is part of life, many people’s disdain for old people, senior citizens, elderly folks, and whatever names people have to describe people of a certain age is rather shocking to me. I have always spent a lot of time with people who are much older than me. From an early age, my mother took me on regular visits to home bound family and friends who were in their advanced years. Mom also ensured I spent time every week with my grandmother (her mother-in-law), who was in her 70s and 80s during my childhood. During the time I worked in a hospital, my first job after receiving my doctorate, I was honored to have a volunteer, Britt Sheally, who wanted to work in the corporate office instead of with patients and who was 85 years young at the time he first joined me in the marketing department. We soon became good friends and it was pretty clear to everyone that I learned as much from him as he did from me. I have always tried to be kind and considerate when it comes to dealing with older people. (Although I will admit being frustrated on numerous occasions during my long residency in South Florida, including today when an elderly man, with an out of state license plate, drove the wrong way on a one way driveway, challenging drivers who faced him head on to an impromptu game of chicken!) I reason that, if I am kind, patient, and tolerant of older people who are doing the best they can, despite physical and cognitive limitations, perhaps, one day when I least expect it, someone will perceive me as “the little old lady from Pasadena” and give me just a little respect.
I remember when, as a teenager, a friend of my father’s celebrated his 55th birthday. I remember thinking that 55 seemed old, and that this guy didn’t look or act old. Now that I’m that age, there are days when feeling old is my new normal. But, when I was maybe 15, being 40 years older seemed a big gap. Now I have a friend who is 40 years + older than me, about to celebrate a 100-1 birthday, but who seems younger than me. All of which is to say that I now clearly know the number of years one has lived is not always correlated with whether one acts old, or young. Melissa and I have friends our age who seem older than some of the oldest old people we know! Another of our favorite people was a seasonal neighbor, Ralph. Along with his wife, Dorothy, Ralph spent winters in south Florida in a house across the street from our long time residence. We were not sure what to think about Ralph when we first met; he was very outgoing and came over to check out us as new neighbors. But, as we got to know the 2 of them, and about their lives, we were impressed by how vibrant and young at heart they were. I also remember my mother helping an elderly neighbor and how much we all learned from her about the history of my hometown, Jacksonville, our part of town, and the river, which flowed in front of her house. And, living in south Florida for over 25 years, being exposed to a world of senior citizens is part of everyday life. But, it is the early, positive, experiences with folks, like those described above, that leave me with a natural curiosity about the life stories of those I meet or see on a regular basis. Where are they from? What have they done? Being kind to old people thus comes naturally, especially now that I am a member of AARP!