For the past five years, I’ve been collecting stories from the elderly who live in a culture so very different from my own. I facilitate a weekly group called “My Life Story” in a retirement community.
I facilitate this group for a few reasons. One, I love sharing stories. Two, it is rich education about a world I know little of. Three, and perhaps the most important reason: I do it because, for sixty minutes every week, I get to shine the spotlight on eight women who sit around a table and tell stories about growing up in the Depression era, the war effort and Victory gardens, radio shows, riding the tram, farm life and Big Band music.
As they tell these stories, they feel a little less invisible.
There are all kinds of grief on the human journey; but, none as painful as the grief of invisibility. Homemakers and humble heroines in their world, these eighty and ninety-year-olds are fading away into the dusty, dark corners of life.
Unheard, unseen, unloved.
In a culture that worships “doing”, they have outlived their usefulness as they totter and tremble through the fragility of old age.
The grief of invisibility is hard to bear. Because these men and women still have breath in their bodies, even if their “aliveness” is questionable.
In our mad rushing-texting-talking-messaging world, their slow pace is annoying. In our busy lives of abbreviated conversations and Cliff-Notes-versions, their repetitive, rambling monologues are maddening. Their world is alien to most of us. And we don’t care to pause, to ask, to acknowledge, to honor.
And so they grieve, in the loneliness of their plush apartments and soulless lives.
They grieve their lost usefulness.
They grieve their failing limbs and senses.
They grieve their lost relevance.
They grieve their fading minds.
We grieve and mourn when they die. Can we resolve to engage with them while they’re still here?
How do I do that, you ask.
By taking a deep breath and biting your tongue when you’re tempted to cut them off.
By putting away your cell phone and looking into their eyes when they speak.
By calling them — not just to confirm a doctor’s appointment or check on a prescription refill but just to say “Hey, Mom. I’m thinking of you and want you to know that I love you.”
By asking for a story from their world and staying interested even if they stray away from the plot.
Not aging is not an option in our world of endless choices. Getting comfortable with aging and the elderly is the only sensible choice we can make.
Strange as it sounds, here’s the truth. Don’t let them grieve their invisibility today. And you won’t grieve as hard when they are really out of sight.
For more stories on my experiences with the elderly, buy my memoir “Losing Amma, Finding Home” at www.umagirish.com