Sunday, December 9, 2007

Older and Wiser

Mr. Roselli sat on the bench in the front of his nursing home every day during Spring, Summer, and Fall. He said hello and waved to everyone in the neighborhood. Mr. Roselli became an expected sight in the North End of downtown Boston. Although we exchanged only a daily greeting, I felt that he was part of my life. Every time I saw him, I felt happy. I wished I could add pleasure to his life in the same way he added pleasure to mine, but in spite of the daily greeting, I was silent. On a hot day in August, he granted my wish by asking for ice cream. I felt grateful that he had given me the opportunity to do something nice for him, even if it was only ice cream. One day, Mr. Roselli disappeared. For weeks, I prayed that he would return, but I never saw him again. I was left mourning the death of someone I never knew. I lost a friend that I never had and I felt sad that I never seized the opportunity to know him before all my chances were gone. Why are we reluctant to go out on a limb to bring happiness to the lives of strangers? Does fear prevent us from interacting with others who are different from ourselves? Or is there just an invisible wall between the elderly and the rest of society? Mr. Roselli tried to bridge this gap, but instead, we all just passed him by.

I still stare at the empty bench and see Mr. Roselli. I am reminded of the feelings of envy and compassion that were ignited by him. I was envious that he had already survived life’s challenges. He had wisdom that I could only hope to achieve. Mr. Roselli had weathered the hardships of depression, technological change, disappointment and grief. In spite of all life’s lessons, he approached each day with optimism and joy. I wondered if I would still welcome the world when I reached his age; or would the scars of battle force my soul to retreat?

I wondered if Mr. Roselli was relieved to die. At some point are we just ready to graduate? Do we feel that the days between the last class and the graduation ceremony linger indefinitely? In school, we know the date of our graduation and we plan accordingly. In life, our greatest uncertainty is the date of our death. We know that the chance of dying is 100% but our greatest mystery is when. Would life be different if we thought that our graduation was close?

There is a group of woman who regularly sit in chairs in front of the nursing home that is next to my gym. One day I told them that I envied them because it seemed that their conversations were so enjoyable. With an expression of sadness, one of the women immediately replied, “but there is nothing else that we can do.” My envy immediately turned to compassion. I couldn’t understand. They had more friends than I have. They have the time to be together to share their lives with each other; but instead, they are only filling the time; waiting for something that they can’t define.

Compassion for the elderly also results from the imperfections of the human body. As an internal defense against a repressive marriage, my grandmother spent her entire life looking forward to old age. Before exercise was fashionable, she worked out every day. Her daily meals were filled with an abundance of vegetables and vitamins and she never smoked or drank. All her fantasies were stored in a box that would be opened after her husband was gone. She longed for the day that she could pursue her dreams without judgment or ridicule. When my grandfather died, the flower bloomed. She traveled around the world, started dating someone new and pursued the dreams that had been hidden for so long. Articles were written about her accomplishments and she won awards. She even started writing and publishing poetry. Yet the universe always has the final word. No matter how hard we try to preserve life, there’s a silent plan that interferes. Five years after she began pursuing her dreams, my grandmother had a stroke. She was confined to a wheelchair and she instantaneously forgot all the plans that she had made. Her dreams came to an abrupt and unexpected halt.

If we have a dream, we need to pursue it now. If there is a restless urge to travel to Africa, we must find a way. If the Peace Corps ignites a mystery in our soul, we must avoid the excuses we use to leave everything behind. Age is an illusion. Someone who is 15 may actually be at middle age and someone who is 40 may have only a few years left. We cannot plan our lives according to the expected average life span. Averages do not always apply. Which half are we? Are we the half that dies before the average or the half that lives longer?

I’ve always wondered why we retire when we become old. In our later years, our self-worth can suffer the most. As we get older, we need work-related accomplishments to reinforce our value in this world. It is also the time when we are physically weak. If our planned retirement includes travel, most places will be difficult to explore. Ancient walled cities in Europe are built at the top of cliffs. To discover these cities, strenuous walking is required. Why don’t we plan for retirement in the middle of our life? Retirement is our earned vacation. If an early death occurs, we will be deprived of a dream that we truly deserve.

The United States is a country that rewards youth and neglects the wisdom of the elderly. In the US, someone says he is 50 and the response is, “You look wonderful. I could have sworn that you were only 40.” In China, when someone says he is 50, the compliment is, “You are only 50? I could have sworn you were at least 60.” In the East, wisdom is valued higher than youth.

The US is obsessed with hard bodies, endowed figures and wrinkle-free faces. We buy magazines that with slender models on the cover. The more beautiful the actor, the higher the box office proceeds. Everyone knows who Julia Roberts is. Only the minority is familiar with Joseph Campbell. The challenge in life is maintaining self-esteem when the majority cannot appreciate what you have to offer. As a society, how do we show an appreciation for the value of wisdom? How do we allow the elderly to share valuable lessons with the rest of us?

I recently heard that the elderly are now being employed as teachers in elementary schools. This revolutionary idea is brilliant. The elderly receives value from being able to share their knowledge with children and they reduce the scarcity of good teachers. Additionally, the lower salaries for teaching are not criticized by the elderly. I also applaud the programs that bring orphanages together with nursing homes. Creating foster grandparents is a wonderful idea. Children in orphanages feel alone and older individuals in nursing homes feel alone. Wouldn’t it be better if both groups could be less alone by being with each other? Though I wonder whether these programs only offer companionship instead of leadership. Most older Americans have stopped telling their stories and children don’t know what to ask. I asked the group of people at our local nursing home about their programs with kids. Their first response was that children didn’t want to hear what they had to say and school groups hadn’t been there in years. Orphanages never came to the nursing home. Maybe children aren’t the appropriate target group for their wisdom. They may be too young to appreciate the value of their learning. Perhaps adults could use the information more productively.

Gaining wisdom is easier if we have the opportunity to stand on other people’s shoulders. Where would science be today without the teachings of Newton, Galileo, and Einstein? Each person who lives on this planet has learned valuable lessons that need to be shared. Why should we reinvent the wheel every time a new life is born? Wouldn’t it be easier if we could learn from others who had traveled the roads before us?

I often wonder why we don’t reach out to the elderly more often. Are we afraid of old age because it is a visual reminder of what we will eventually become? Do we just ignore the inevitable by believing that it will be different for us? In most families, grandparents are tolerated rather than revered. Visits to nursing homes are filled with feelings of obligation instead of anticipation. How do we change people’s attitudes toward the elderly?

Most of us will be old one day. Don’t we want the quality of life to be positive? Charities focus on children, instead of older individuals. The Make a Wish Foundation grants wishes to children with terminal diseases. Why isn’t there a Make a Wish foundation for the elderly? These people have terminal diseases too, and it is a terminal disease that we all may share. People who are older have wishes too. “My best friend died last week,” related an elderly acquaintance. “Her only wish was to see her son in Wisconsin one more time before she died. Her son didn’t have the money to fly to Boston and she didn’t have the money to send him. She was never able to see him before her death. Her ashes were sent to Wisconsin yesterday and it broke my heart. If only there had been a way to bring them together one last time,” she said as her eyes filled with tears.

In Boston’s North End, there are Italian religious festivals during the summer weekends. Marching bands parade the streets carrying a statue of Madonna and people drop rolls of dollar bills out of their window as a religious contribution. During the Fisherman’s Feast, the parade was halted for almost an hour as the rolls of dollar bills were lowered into the street from the windows of the nursing home on my street. They graciously gave from their hearts even though they rarely receive anything in return. They believe in charity when others’ charity passes them by. The goal of society is to ensure that the stronger members help the weaker members survive. Charitable programs that help children are beneficial because they are weaker than adults; but we need to look both directions. The charitable commitment to children should be equal to the charitable commitment for older individuals.

We have a responsibility as a society to change our attitudes toward the elderly and to incorporate them into our lives. We can’t ignore an entire group of human beings because we are afraid of old age. Death is nothing to be afraid of. Life can be scarier than death. Especially a life has lost its purpose. Elderly individuals deserve genuine compassion, instead of actions that are based on guilt or obligation.

The wisest person I ever met was an 80-year-old stranger I met in the park. I was mesmerized by his words. Even though ten years have passed, I still think about what he said. If he hadn’t had the courage to talk to me, I would have missed a message that had a profound effect on my life. I’ve asked many people why don’t we don’t have one day a year when we honor the elderly. It’s not fair that they have given so much to society, only to be forgotten when they are old.

We need to break down the walls that separate youth from old age. If we don’t do something now, we are only perpetuating our eventual fate. It’s not going to be any different for us when we are 80; and if we ignore the problem today, we may be too weak to change things when they actually affect us.

Where would we be without older Americans? They supported us during both World Wars. They helped rebuild our economy during the worst depression in US history. Throughout their lives, they put their trust in us. Now it is time for us to put our trust in them. They are the same people in older bodies. Inside they feel young even if the mirror tells them that they are old. When we become part of the elderly population, we will finally realize that time is only an illusion. Do we treat older Americans in the same way that we would want to be treated? Do we want to sit on park benches waiting for our lives to end? Do we want a life where each day feels like eternity; a day filled with endless pain medication, television shows and bridge games? If that is not the desired future, then we have to make a commitment to increase the value of their lives. We need to ensure that being old doesn’t become synonymous with being neglected. We need to follow the example of countries in Europe and Asia. As a society, we need to value wisdom more highly than youth.

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