Three months ago, my wife and I moved into “The Home,” in which 350 much older souls reside. I asked my wife to be on the lookout for people similar to us, a couple we might pal around with. Every time I ask her if she’s spied any prospects, she says, “Nope. Not yet.”
Searching for people like us doesn’t imply we’re snobs. No, we’re friendly and polite to all. Nor are we ageist. Heck, my mother is 97 and we’re still nice to her. We have kindly impulses. At the big Christmas dinner, we listened as Sarge the Hostess barked, “How many?” followed by a chorus of creaky voices: “One…one…one.” When our turn came, we asked Sarge for a table for forty, so all the lonely singles could join us.
Here’s a true story. I’m standing outside the elevator, holding the door as residents shuffle in. When it’s my turn to board, I tap left with my cane—clank. A walker. I tap right—thud. A shoe. I sweep left to right—clank, thud, clank. Then a man’s old voice growls, “Well, are you going to get in or not?” I squeeze into a corner. The door slides shut. I wait a beat. Then I say, “Sir, I use this white cane so I won’t bump or crowd anyone. Sometimes, this process takes a few seconds.” I refrain from adding, “you jackass.”
As we rise, silent but for the whoosh of displaced air, I recall the words of one seasoned resident: “If you didn’t hate old people already, you will soon.” And, though I’m not feeling the love here and now, I admit my part in this elevator transaction—I hate being the straggler, the one taking too long. And, with an effort, I forgive myself for being imperfect and the old man for being impatient.
I burst into our apartment, eager to tell my wife about the mean old man. But she gets the drop on me. “Honey, I’ve been watching our neighbors squirm, trapped inside their twisted bodies and I see and hear how chronic pain changes mind, mood and personality. Living in pain would rob my spirit of joy.”
“I believe I just encountered such a soul,” I say to my wife. “A man whose words offended me and whom I judged harshly. I forgave him but he did touch a nerve in me, a nerve that causes me more pain than his words—the pain of my blindness, of feeling less than. Maybe less than is how he sees his life. Maybe he’s bitter. Maybe he’s just a jackass. But that’s not for me to judge. God knows, I get nasty when I feel tortured by blindness.”
“God knows you do,” says my wife. “and I forgive you for it. Just like you forgave the man in the elevator. Because there’s so much more to you and him and all of us than our limitations. Aging is wicked. What annoys me now is what I fear I’ll become.”
We’ve learned our lesson for today. Here in “The Home,” My wife and I will still seek another “younger” couple who looks like us, acts like us and thinks like us. What we find is a multitude of brittle bones and feeble bodies—all of which I can’t see anyway but all of whom I must not overlook. If we seek only similarities while judging based on differences, if we dismiss those who shuffle behind walkers or get pushed around in wheelchairs, then we miss the chance to connect with, well, people like us.