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OLD AGE IS FRIGHTENING TO THE YOUNG

When my son was in the third grade, the teacher asked for a show of hands of how many wanted to grow as old as their grandparents.

He was the only one who raised his hand.Later, he asked me why. I told him one of the reasons was that he had a grandmother only 16 years older than his mother and a stepgrandfather near the same age. The rest of his class were probably seeing grandparents slowed down by the aging process.

For some reason old age is frightening to a child. It has wrinkles. It's pale. Sometimes it doesn't have teeth and can't hear well. It moves slowly, and when it sits, the knees fall apart. It forgets things or doesn't relate to what's going on. Laughter does not come easily.

The person in the frail body used to buy your Girl Scout cookies by the dozens and chances on a pony she had no use for. She attended all the school pageants and plays (when you were a bad tooth or a dangling participle) and never missed baking your birthday cake. The day will come when the same person will have trouble remembering who you are.

Old age is all around us. We can't help but notice it. I have always been fascinated by the struggle most of the elderly go through to hang onto their dignity. It's almost regal. Some give up and the slip strap slides from the shoulder, and there is no bra to support the soft lumps around their midriff. They pad around in bedroom slippers and use their fingers for a comb. We allow them to become invisible because they are too painful to watch.

But most of the elderly show up for each day and must question why they're there. They fight loneliness, prejudice, abuse, abandonment, poor health, lack of money and a past that is too painful to compare to the present.

More than 30 years ago, Jenny Joseph wrote one of my favorite poems, "When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple." She was middle-aged and without children when she published it. What she predicted for advanced years was a bonus - you could break the rules that had been imposed on your youth. It's a beautiful poem, and she vows to spend her pension on brandy and summer gloves, sit down on the pavement when she is tired, pick flowers in other's gardens and learn to spit.

We all can't be Auntie Mame, but maybe the struggle to keep going sets us apart from those just occupying space.

I cannot believe I'm already wearing purple. I always said it was worn by the shroud crowd. I can only hope that someday when a third-grade teacher asks for a show of hands of those who want to live as long as their grandparents, my granddaughter or grandson will wave their arms in the air. Maybe they'll take me for Show and Tell.