When I was about 8 to when I was 11, one of my best friends was the elderly lady who lived next door. She was a widow, and lived alone, her grown children having long since moved away, and I don't believe I ever met one of them. She was my adopted grandmother, in many ways, especially since I had no contact with my own extended family.
I spent a lot of time at her house. We had tea together, we weeded her garden, and we watched TV together some evenings. She loved "Truth or Consequences" and "What's My Line?" and would tell me to "hush" when I wanted to ask questions. She loved to talk to me about her late husband, who had been a firefighter for the city, and she was the one who explained to me what the numbered signals meant when the fire horns went off. She still had a chart in her basement showing the location and designation of every pull box.
When I was 11, either she or her family decided that staying in her house was too much for her to keep up, so her house was sold, and she moved into a senior citizen's apartment building. I only saw her twice after that.
That was the sum total of my experience with older people growing up. Both my parents had become estranged from their families, and I grew up not knowing my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, or my many cousins.
As many young people do, I pretty much saw the elderly as... well... old. Distant. Set in their ways. Often cranky, and maybe even a little difficult to deal with. The woman I knew, of course, was an exception, I was sure, but based on everything else I knew about "old people," be it from books or television or from lumping nearly all politicians in that category, getting older was not something I looked forward to. I mean, who wanted to have to shuffle around, or have gray hair, or end up in a nursing home where no one would ever visit you, ever? Who wanted to get so out of touch with the new, the exciting, all the things that young people valued?
This culture has a very strong tendency to separate people into groups near or at their own age, starting in pre-school, and continuing indefinitely. There are some places now that do progressive things like having day care centers in retirement communities, or places where college students study geriatrics by visiting assisted living facilities. Even so, most young people don't have a lot to do with older people until they start to become one.
This has been one of the surprising benefits of becoming an EMT.
I have had the pleasure to meet some incredible older people, and in doing so, have learned that "old age" is not exactly what I thought when I was a kid.
For one thing, that line delineating where "old" starts has gotten significantly older, as it has gotten closer. I swear I still feel like a teenager most days. Except maybe trying to get out of bed in the morning.
I've also learned that "old" isn't a chronological age, at all. I've met people in their forties who are clearly old- and people over 100 who are clearly not. I've met younger folks with the physical condition of a person twice their age, and I've met people with a variety of physical ailments who go on living their lives as if there isn't a thing wrong, refusing to let it get them down.
I've had the honor of listening to stories of days gone by, including the history of our town.
I've met couples who have been married for far longer than I've been alive- and I'm no spring chicken. I've seen the way they care for each other, the comfort and ease of knowing each other's thoughts and needs.
I've met older women who are soft and sweet, gentle and ladylike, and I've met some who are as tough as nails and not afraid to let you know it.
Even those who are struggling with memory loss, or some other ailment, often have a sense of dignity and a courteous way of interacting with people that modern life often seems to be missing.
Mostly, what I've learned is this:
"old age" isn't necessarily so bad. If I should be so fortunate as to live as long as some of these people I've been able to meet, I hope I age with the grace that they have. There are some pretty terrific older folks out there, who laugh often, love deeply, and still have inside them that child full of wonder that they started out with.
Learning that is one heck of a gift, for which I am truly grateful!