It was perhaps never a good time for older people. You sense daily your waning strength; you cannot do now what you did, often easily, at other times. You cannot lift a packed suitcase or walk up four flights of stairs. Even to unscrew a tamper-proof medicine bottle you have to swallow your pride and beg the nearest youngster.
The humiliation does not stop there. Even your mind plays tricks with you. Forget about reciting the poem that you knew so well. You might start well, but experience has taught you that you will invariably stumble and forget some key lines. Invariably and embarrassingly, you forget the name of your nephew’s tall wife, the one who wears a shiny nose-pin. Sometimes even the nephew’s name eludes you.
That cost business has real terror. You worked all your life, for what you thought was a decent wage. Nobody told you that what you earned and laid by would amount to a pittance in a few years. Your children laugh when they hear of your piddling accounts and what your life insurance policy is worth now. Once you pay the rental – for the same-size puny apartment you now pay three times what you started paying – you can barely cover your food bill and the occasional taxi fare.
You walk carefully, for you know that if you were to slip and fall, you have to turn to your children for what medical bills cost now. They are kind and helpful, but kindness can be tiresome after a while and you don’t care to be a help-seeking supplicant any time. You love your children, and you appreciate them. But you know well they belong to a different generation, with very different priorities. Looking after an aging parent occurs somewhere on their to-do list, but surely not at the top. You understand. Competition is fierce and demands on their time intense.
Also, they speak a different language, almost as if they belong to another world. You have tried, occasionally, tentatively, to hint at the void you sometimes feel and you have realized quickly that you were coming up against a wall. They would like to be of help, but they have no time. You would have liked them to explain an item in the newspaper that caught your attention or to help with a problem on your computer, but they rarely have the time to spare. They may quickly say a few things, but you may not understand, and you would prefer to give up than seem to be badgering them.
Essentially, you are on your own. One of your wisecracking friends used to say, “Aging is not nice, but the alternative is no better.” Yes, you are mercifully alive, which many of your friends are not. So many, your closest friends, have moved on; those that remain are often unwell, not quite mobile, or inaccessible to sensible conversation. It is good to survive, but not so good when the people you knew or cared for have not. There are few to talk to and nobody to talk with.
You don’t look at the mirror as often as you did earlier, but when you do you have to reckon with the aged face you see: a lined visage, an old scar or two, graying temples, hooded eyes. You are not the robust man you looked in yesteryears. You try to stride, without a stoop, and manage to achieve a relaxed but respectable gait. Yes, whatever the thoughts that gnaw at you, you are still quite a person, of poise and polish.
You don’t feel old at all. Strangely, you sense the person you have always believed yourself to be, sitting right there within you, watching, understanding, growing quietly. And as steadily as when you sat at a school desk and learned mathematics, or stood in a college hall and listened to a student politician. Or labored at your office desk in the beige hall and answered endless service calls.
No, you are not old. The years may have furrowed your face, sapped your energy, dimmed your eyes, enlarged your prostate, or robbed the value of your savings. You are alive, you are active, you have the grip of your world, you are taking in everything that is happening around you, you are making sense of the universe. You are a full human being, worthy and valuable, at par with the rest of humanity, titled for respect.
Didn’t somebody say that “an old man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick,” only to remember to add, “unless soul clap its hands and sing – and louder sing – for every tatter in its mortal dress.”
Sing, for Heaven’s sake, and sing the loudest you can.