The question surprised me. Given the circumstances, it really surprised me. I was standing, naked, about to take a shower or, more precisely, I was standing with a guy who was himself dressed and about to give me the first assisted shower of my life. A week before I had been doing something I’ve done for forty years at least, I was out riding my bike for exercise and for the joy of being in the sun on a nice day, feeling the wind on my body and the strength of my legs. I remember distinctly I was accelerating down a slight hill at the last second deciding to turn onto a side street. Then I woke up in an ambulance with someone fastening a collar firmly around my neck. What happened in between I was only able to partially reconstruct later. But the consequences were clear: seven broken ribs, a concussion, and a partially punctured lung.
What followed after the ER diagnosis was four days in the hospital then six days at a nursing home/rehabilitation center where my buddy shower was about to ensue. The young man was African, from Ghana he said, in the U.S. for only six months. So when he asked out of the blue, “What is it like to be old?” I found myself at a loss for an answer. I think I tried some lame humor about how you heal a lot slower, but that was not his point. He said that where he came from those who were old were given great respect, but he found here that young people did not listen to those who were older and definitely did not respect their wisdom. That took me aback. I tried to answer him as best I could however. He really wanted to know.
First, I told him, I don’t think I had ever given much thought to what it was like to be old and maybe I should have. It just was what it was as we often say here. But second, I’ve not experienced disrespect, at least not very often and that mostly when driving in impatient Washington DC. From teaching high school the last eight years and from our mentoring of young couples before marriage, our experience has been nothing but positive with the next generations. Still, it made me wonder, is it possible that many elders disengage from their place to take up residence in 55 and over communities or head for warmer climates to be with others like themselves because they feel their contribution has ended? I also wonder if we give the question enough thought before we're old. I know I haven't. I have had the vague goal of "finishing well," but honestly I never was able to quite put legs on that. We seem to put a lot of our energy in America into staying as young and healthy as possible, and most of that is to the good, but perhaps the philosophy of "You're only as old as you think" needs some challenging.
So, if you're game, how do you think about what it is like to be old or what you might think about before you enter that territory. I am planning on giving this some thought myself in the weeks ahead.