To age requires no effort at all. To age with grace, well that’s something entirely different. We all know and have heard how disposable our old people are. We walk past them, take little notice and have little regard. Now that I am old, I figured I should have more empathy and understanding of my peeps. If I don’t make friends with old age, I’ll have no one to talk to.
I have always been impressed with people who have a comfort level with the fragility of old age. I don’t have any indictments on youth dismissing age, and it is futile acts to have a generation of puppies find compassion for the elderly. That is not to say that there are not young people who have a fondness and respect for the aged, however it’s the exception, not the rule. No need to try and excavate empathy from our youth, better than to work on what it means to age with grace. Grace knows how to ride the ebbs and flows and all the transitions, and to always be appropriate to the times.
Years ago, I had this idea to take a group of people (Actors/Singers) out to the old actors’ home -Motion Picture & Television in Woodland Hills, to sing Christmas carols. We would do this a capella with just a harmonica to get us on key. I collected some sing along favorites.
I had never even been invited to an old person sing-along (is there such a thing?) much less come up with this idea myself and then to orchestrate it. I have always been afraid of old people. I would go out of my way to avoid them. They scared me right down to their boney fingers, and I was certain if I shook hands with one of them, I would end up holding a disembodied hand. I was afraid of broken hips, labored breathing and long hairs growing in all the wrong places. So to come up with this idea was crazy.
After arriving at the old age home, we were met by a very ample, African American woman named Mary, who directed us to lounge area where all were gathered. Even though I had put this together, I had recused myself of any kind of leadership and retreated to the back of the pack. Jack, an obnoxiously loud actor, had moved into the foreground and was spearheading the singing. He showed no sign of reserve as he prodded and prompted some of these crusty old people into singing along.
Meanwhile, as I was sending out a silent disclaimer that I didn’t have anything to do with all of this, I was being eyeballed by a man in a wheelchair. He looked like he had been put together with popsicle sticks and chewing gum. He extended a long boney finger in my direction and waved me over. The old man was wearing an LA Dodgers hat that was covering little sprigs of white silk hair. He was hunched over in his wheel chair. He gestured to me indicating for me to put my ear to his mouth so he could tell me something. I had great concern about putting my ear anywhere near his mouth, but I conceded.
“You are afraid of old people…not like your friend there. He probably grew-up with old people… It took a lot for you to come here. We appreciate it. One day you will look like this so you had better make friends with it.” He said.
Then he went back into a slump.
I didn’t say anything…Jesus Christ, who is this guy?
We sang with and talked to the old people. We laughed with the staff. The day was a great success. I couldn’t get the baseball cap guy out of my mind. He barely looked alive and yet he had pinned me to a wall with his prescient candor. Before we left, I looked for him to say thank-you and good-bye, but couldn’t find him.
I learned much that day:
- What you see is not what you GET. In order to GET something you have to look beyond what you see.
- It’s easy to dismiss something and that SOMETHING that you dismissed could be the greatest contribution to your life.
- Don’t just look for the comfortable or predictable solutions. The gold is in the most unlikely places.
- Like Jack, be BOLD in your demand for LIFE.
- Don’t be arrogant about what you have, be grateful for the time you have it because it will most certainly change.
Aging with grace is to understand when some “way of being” is bankrupt and some other behavior is looking to take its rightful place. None of us ever think we are going to get old. My generation was known as “The Young Generation” and we were never going to age. We branded ourselves with the tag line “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”, but since Mick Jagger is now over 70, we have had to amend that number.
To age gracefully is to become more aware; more aware of your impact, both good and bad. To accept that which you will never be and to contribute what was always meant to be. To have nostalgic conversations with old friends while surrounding yourself with young people. To become more attentive to your health and less attentive to your vanity. To celebrate your birthday, announcing your actual age.
It is not an easy to age with grace, but it’s actually much harder to attempt to turn.