For Thanksgiving, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Bobby’s 92 year old grandmother. She’s great! She is also very old.
If you’ve never hung out extensively with a nonagenarian, you’re missing out on a lot of lessons in living. She didn’t share anything wild like chugging whiskey for longevity or the importance of eating your vegetables but I did learn quite a bit about what it means to move through the world at a different pace, from a different point of view. Not only was it a lesson on living but it’s a lesson on understanding people.
So what did I learn? Here are a few things.
A little patience goes a long way.
Old people have a tough time hearing and seeing and sometimes understanding things. That means something as simple as holding a conversation can become a chore of speaking loudly and slowly and measuring every thought out to become a sort of boat that has to sail over to them, dock, and be welcomed before their own boat is sent back to you to relay a message. Many discussions turned into arguments or silent annoyances because we’d try to rush words with her. How was this avoided? Patience. Listening. Repeating. Being slower with how you give and get information. Easier said than done in 2017, obviously.
A walk is a workout.
We literally walked two blocks to two stores one night, to get her a souvenir to take with her back home. It was fun! But the next morning came with the surprising realization that she was very sore from not having walked that much recently. Who knew? This was a lesson in keeping active and, as we age, continuing to do things like getting out for a walk and picking up a weight or two, as to not let all your muscles puddle on bone.
Confusion is always the exit from the mind’s highway.
There were times where she would walk into a room and not know where she was. When we slept on the couch of our two bedroom apartment so she could sleep in our bed, we were woken up in the middle of the night once or twice because she was lost. Bobby’s mom at one point told us that she found her in the bathroom just standing and, when asked what she was doing, she responded that she was “figuring out where she was.” There were many reprieves from confusion but moments like this were sadly the norm, the reality of being very, very old. Again: patience, listening, empathy.
Own your shit.
This one is literal. When you get old, your pee pee and poo poo parts simply aren’t the same. Own it. Grandma is still quite bashful about these things (Who wouldn’t be??) but there’s also a mild expectation of being in your nineties in public: you can and will have accidents. We all will.
The elderly are not children.
Definitely don’t treat an old person like a child. Don’t tell them they are acting like a child. Try not to even use “child” and “grandma” in the same sentence. It won’t end well.
Numbed senses not dumbed senses.
I sat down to breakfast wearing a shirt covered in flowers. Grandma looked appalled and leaned close, pointing at my shirt. “There are spiders on your shirt,” she said. At another point, I explained how I would be cooking something for dinner, relaying a bit of culinary practice. She nodded. “How are you going to cook it?” she asked. These are common situations as the senses are numbed down. Like the confusion, like the patience, like the not-going-to-that-child-place, people in their nineties are quite numbed. Hearing and seeing and even tasting at that point is a reach into the beyond – and it comes with mixed results.
Keep making and keeping friends.
Like a walk being a workout, being “so old” also means being quite isolated and without all the socialization that us young people have. Not only is this lonely but you forget how to – I don’t know. – eat toast with a fork and knife. You only crave something like Sweet-N-Low to sweeten drinks and Fox News to get your information. You get in ruts because you aren’t socialized and evolving with everyone else but have been locked into a way of being that is, well, old school. This isn’t a problem but it can often clash with what’s outside the window.
Old people and old dogs have a lot in common.
Grandma and my thirteen year old English Setter, Dottie, are very different people. One’s an old lady, one’s an old dog. One has trouble seeing, the other has trouble hearing. But they are in some ways extremely the same. They require a special handling and understanding and, while old, often default to behaviors that are concerning and not too dissimilar from children. Being with grandma helped me be more compassionate with Dottie and seeing Dottie – who, obviously, doesn’t have the means by which to articulate her old lady needs – reinforced a sense of empathy and understanding for grandma. We can learn a lot from old people and old dogs.
Death is not on the mind – at least not explicitly.
Somehow, in some way, someone approaching the end wasn’t constantly sunken into a fear of exiting but lost in enjoying and navigating life inhibited by so much. I was quite surprised because, like, I’m always thinking about death, as if someone told me the ending to a movie and now I can’t not stop thinking about it or looking for how it manifests in my life. It was refreshing to see this and reminded me of a Science Of Us story from earlier this year which emphasized how aging reshapes how one thinks about death. It was fascinating and, in many ways, uplifting. This is a positive since, well, death is such a negative.