Ever since I was a pre-teen kid and I was bussed off with a bunch of other bright-eyed youngsters to sing for the elderly, I’ve had a terrible fear of growing old. More specifically, growing old and completely reliant on others. See, the well-meaning yet misguided volunteers at the youth organisation in question had taken us kids along to an old age facility which dealt largely with the mentally compromised. It was my first look at senility. And it was frightening. I’m not worried about dying, it’s the getting old and dependent that worries me.
Looking back, we all handled it like troopers. Kids are resilient like that. But never mind the fact that we sang our hearts out and waved like mad through the back window of the combi when we headed home – it left an imprint.
I think that if the youth workers had given us (or our parents) a heads up, we’d have been prepared and it would have been a completely different experience. Thinking about it now, those guys were probably barely into their 20s, so way younger than I am now. They probably had no idea what to expect, so I don’t blame them. But I am fascinated by how that experience shaped so much of how I feel about ageing.
Most of the people I interacted with that day had regressed so far back they could no longer speak. There was a woman with a spoon strapped to her hooked fist so she could try to feed herself. Another clung to the hand of one of my young friends and sucked and dribbled on it. I was frightened. And the memories are still so vivid.
As I have grown older, I’ve become ashamed of my fear. That day shouldn’t have shaped me the way it did – it should have taught me something about life. It should have been a gentle lesson in compassion. I wish I could go back now, and join young Terri there. Stand next to her and quietly explain. Guide her gently to the lady hunched over the Formica table and carefully stroke her thinning hair and speak softly to her.
Ageing happens to a large number of us. Some people will go out in their nineties with a whoop and kick of hiking-booted heels. Others will slip slowly further from reality and become lost in confusing worlds of once-familiar shapes. There’s really no telling what waits for us, for me.
And yes, it’s still scary. But as my experience with ageing and death has broadened, as I’ve noticed the birth dates in the death column creeping gradually closer to my own, I’ve started to grow a lot less panicked.
A few nights ago I dashed into Checkers for some last minute bits and pieces for dinner, and on my way out I found an old man clinging to his walker at the edge of the ramped pavement. His head stooped, I could practically feel the tension emanating from his stiff limbs. I stepped up beside him and asked if I could help him cross the road. After a little shuffle round to his other side when I realised he couldn’t turn his head, we established that his car was parked just a few metres to the left in the disabled bay, and that his wife was still busy in the shop. He had the car keys hooked over a stiffened finger. I offered to help him get to his car and make sure none of the maniacs in the parking lot wiped him out in the process.
It wasn’t a quick process. I asked what he needed me to do and he answered in strained, quavering short sentences. “I have Parkinson’s,” he said meekly, as I retrieved the keys from his finger and swung the passenger door wide. “I’m so sorry,” he said, as I helped swivel his walker around so he could ever so slowly ease himself towards the car.
And I was floored. Here was a man, facing challenges the like I can’t even fathom, apologising to me because I took some time out of my evening to help him. “No, no, no, really, there’s nothing to apologise for,” I babbled.
I left him sitting in the car waiting for his wife, hunched shoulders, car keys between his feet. And it was a moment that completely shifted my thinking. Yes. We get old. Yes, one day I may be completely dependent on others. I might end up stranded at the curb with no idea how I’m going to get where I need to be. I may be hunched in a corner in an old age home battling to lift my own spoon.
BUT there will always be someone who stops and asks if they can help. Someone who brings a bus load of fresh young faces to bring some joy into the dreary day. There will always be people. It’s a circle. And I hope that if I ever am in that situation, that I will have a chance to be a lesson, an enlightening moment for someone else.