“The saddest thing about old age is our idea of it.” (Marty Rubin)
One of the common insights expressed by elderly people is that with age comes invisibility. In a Psychology Today blog post, psychiatrist Tamara McClintock Greenberg noted that many of her elderly patients describe feeling invisible as they shop or stroll or ride a bus. Once aware of that impression, she began to notice it herself: “And then it happened to me. I realized that when I walk down the street, younger people simply don’t see me.” She explains it thus: “We live in a youth-fixated culture where people are afraid to age and to be vulnerable to growing older; where ideals about attractiveness are oriented around those with young, healthy bodies.”
How sad that people who have worked, and struggled, and contributed all their lives often fade from view, perceived—if at all—as insignificant and irrelevant. Still very much alive, they disappear like phantoms, forgotten and alone.
“Hello In There” was a beautiful song from John Prine’s first album in 1971 (this YouTube version is accompanied by fantastic photos). It piercingly describes the loneliness of old age. I was touched by it when I first heard it in my teens; today, its powerful refrain strikes much closer to home:
You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
If a kindness movement is going to take root and grow, it must encompass everyone, including our oldest and most invisible citizens. That means changing many prevailing attitudes toward aging and the aged.
Recently, I’ve come across stories that have illustrated the loneliness many elderly people experience, and kindnesses extended to them:
- Officers in Manchester, England, responded to a call for help from Doris Thomson, assuming that either she or her 95-year-old husband, Fred, had fallen or injured themselves. What they found, though, was that Doris and Fred “were simply lonely and wanted to share a chat and, perhaps a cup of tea with someone.” The responding officers recognized the more subtle facets of their job as protectors of the public; they brewed a pot of tea and sat down to chat with the elderly couple. The two officers later faced some criticism for “wasting time,” but they stood by their decision to provide comfort during a time of need. Fortunately, their act of kindness was perceived by many to have been an appropriate and splendid deed.
- Earlier this month, police in Rome responded to a report of crying coming from an apartment to find an elderly couple who had been “driven to tears through a combination of loneliness and viewing upsetting news reports on TV.” The four responding officers offered companionship—as well as a warm meal. They visited with 84-year-old Jole and her 94-year-old husband, Michele, as they cooked up a meal of pasta for the couple.
- In another story from England earlier this month, an elderly woman who had fallen while running a bath tried to call her daughter for help, but misdialed and instead reached a BMW dealership a few miles from her home. When the manager realized what had happened he had his receptionist stay on the phone with the woman while he drove over to help her. He found her front-door unlocked and entered to find her on the floor, with blood on her face, and her tub overflowing. He helped her to a sofa and covered her with a blanket, then waited with her until her family arrived to care for her.
- And in Hartford, Connecticut, 911 dispatcher Katherine Grady was at the end of her shift when she took a call from an 86-year-old woman, Francis Royer. Francis is disabled and has a heart condition and just wanted to know if there was someone who could help her take her garbage out the next day, as it had been two weeks since she had been able to roll her garbage barrels to the end of her driveway. Grady promised Ms. Royer that she would come over to help the next day, which happened to be her day off. She not only came to take out the garbage, but she stayed to visit and to help dispose of some heavy items and newspapers from Royer’s basement.
The responses to these cries for help are moving and encouraging, but what concerns me most is that very few elderly people who need help will ask for it. They’re proud, they’re afraid, and very often they simply have no one to call. They continue in their isolation, hoping for a knock on the door, a call from a friend or family member, even a smile from a stranger—someone to say to them, “Hello in there, hello.” But they remain invisible.
We can’t turn away from people because they move more slowly, or perhaps no longer hear as well as they once did. Nor can we discount them even if they’re sometimes—or always—confused or frail. Growing old is a condition we cannot ignore or avoid. Sure, we all want to be as healthy and able as possible in our final years, but for some of us that will not be possible, and we need to honor every person for the sum and complexity of who they are and the life they lived.
What goes around comes around. If we teach our children that old people don’t matter, if we condone the invisibility our society confers on the aged, we invite that same experience for ourselves when our time comes, and for our children when it’s their turn. And, most importantly, we discount the value of every life.
Maybe it’s fear that causes us to look away, perhaps discomfort, or obliviousness, but we owe it to our elders to treat them with respect and kindness. For those of us who choose to live a life of kindness, extending kindness to our oldest and frailest companions on this journey is a privilege. There is much we can learn from the oldest members of our society. Let’s appreciate all they have to teach us and give them the respect they deserve.
“When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)