Think about some of the things you’re really good at. When people think about you, what do they say? Maybe you’re a great listener. A generous friend. A long-distance runner. Successful career person.
I don’t mean to brag, but my specialty is old people.
Like, I mean, I am really, really good with old people. I can spend hours with them and I guarantee I will still have my sanity intact – while yours is possibly ready to go within five minutes of an old person encounter. I am the old person whisperer and – damn it – I want it on my gravestone just how good I was with old people during my life because, folks: it. is. no. small. feat.
My old person expertise began at birth. Why? Because I’ve basically been surrounded by old people since the day I was born. The miraculous story of my blessed birth goes something like this: My mother did not think she was capable of having children at her age and – surprise!!! – at the ripe old age of 41 she had me. The end.
While having a baby in your forties is something every middle-aged woman with some extra time and a good fertility doctor (or very bad birth control) is doing these days, in my mom’s era, it was almost unheard of. Everyone, doctors included, was sure I’d probably come out looking something like Chunk in Goonies. While the actual outcome (me) is debatable, I lived to tell the tale. And that tale is a life filled with old people.
Having a middle-aged mother also meant having an even more middle-aged dad – one who was pushing 50 by the time I came along. My father’s hair was white long before I was even conceived, prompting most people to confuse him for my grandfather. My mother’s hair was going very gray when she was pregnant, and her stylist (or hairdresser, as my mom called him) begged her to dye it. Which she did not agree to – as evidenced by the following photo.
While my parents seemed old from the get go, many of my relatives – their brothers and sisters – were even older. Quality family time when my parents needed someone to watch me was often spent with aunts, who would take me to church services or play board games – nary a cousin in sight because they were all teenagers or older, and had gone on to escape into a world not filled with old people.
Sure, I had older siblings who blunted the old person exposure at times. But my older sister was gone to college before I had even finished elementary school. And it was then that I was left alone – to learn the ways of how old people socialize (square dancing club), eat (senior specials at Denny’s) and maintain basic hygiene (my mom used to “set” her hair with curlers and called toothpaste “tooth polish” – something I’ve never quite gotten over).
Over the years, I went to an extraordinarily high number of musical theater shows and spent many weekends going places on tour busses with my parents, and other old people. On Sunday evenings we watched Lawrence Welk and drank black tea with milk.
But the experience I gained from these long years with the elderly means I now have a thorough understanding of old people. I understand what makes them tick. Not a fan of small talk, what I love about old people is they will take you from “Hello, I’m Frances, nice to meet you,” to deep topics within five minutes. Subjects can range from serious health ailments, to their disappointment in their grandchildren, to time spent in an interment camp in Nazi Germany.
“I’m just warning you, there will probably be a lot of old people at this thing,” friends have warned me over the years before bringing me in to a family party or community event.
“Its fine,” I’ll say, waving at them nonchalantly. “Old people are my specialty,” I’ll add, sighing, as I head in, and start right in with Aunt Mildred, who recently had open heart surgery, as if we were old friends.
Of course, the old person I’ve known best over the years is my dad. We lost my mother a decade ago, but my dad keeps going, approaching 90 now.
What’s surprised me a bit is the feistiness he’s developed in his extreme old years. A gentle soul who’s barely ever has a bad word to say about anyone most of his life, in his 80’s, he’s taken to spells of grumpiness lately.
“I think Dad’s lost his filter,” my sister texted me one morning, slightly alarmed, when she was escorting him to a minor day surgery procedure, a common thing for my dad these days. “He just said, really loud to me in the waiting area, ‘Do you see that woman with the long white hair? I HATE long white hair!’”
My sister was mortified and continued to send me increasingly hysterical updates as my dad tired of the aides tending to him that day and then yelled at nurse for wearing too much perfume.
My old people specialty also means I understand that old people, much like children, will only be told what to do up to a certain point. Desperate to assert their independence, they will fight like a dog if you do something that dares to take it from them. Case in point: the driving issue. At 87, my dad still drives – much to our horror on many days. Suggesting that he not drive himself will only make him defensive, so I have to very carefully watch how I say things to him.
“So, uh, what’s your plan for getting to dialysis today?” I asked him casually one morning, as a foot of snow came furiously piling down in New England and most of the area was in a state of emergency.
“Oh, I’m just going to drive myself,” he said. “The roads are fine here.”
“Dad! You can’t! Let me call a cab to come get you!” I exclaimed, knowing immediately I had blown it with my alarmed tone.
“It’s fine!” he insisted. “Don’t worry about it.”
I hung up in a panic and began polling Facebook friends up in the same area as Dad for a read on the situation.
“Do not. I repeat: Do not let him go out on those roads,” one friend wrote.
“Shit!” my mind raced, knowing if I called back I was going to have to approach the driving angle in a completely different, non-threatening way, much in the same fashion one approaches a cat before stuffing it in a carrier to take it to the vet.
“Look, Dad,” I said to him a few minutes later. “Um, hey, what if you could skip your appointment with the doctor’s blessing. Would you be willing to skip today?”
“Yeah, I guess I could do that. If they say it’s OK,” he informed me.
Within minutes I had the dialysis clinic on the phone.
“My 80+ year old father, who often does not wear socks with his shoes in winter, is insisting on driving himself over there for this appointment,” I pleaded.
The dialysis people, also wise in the ways of old people, got it immediately.
“It’s OK to skip sometimes,” his nurse told me. “Tell him to stay home and stay warm.”
It was that day that I thanked God once again for giving me the gift of old people expertise. I smiled, happy in my heroics, content in the knowledge that the most important old person in my world would stay out of the storm, sitting under a blanket with the thermostat cranked to 83, drinking tea with milk and watching re-runs of Lawrence Welk on PBS.