The Joys of Hanging Out with My Elders

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 20, 2014

You know that poem that begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”? Personally, I plan to wear boxing gloves. I want to be prepared for the people who—the minute I pass 75 or so—will start calling me “cute” and asking things like, “How are we today?”

This wouldn’t happen in all cultures, of course, but here in the West, even the healthiest seniors tend to get treated like big wrinkled babies. They need help, the thinking seems to be, but they can’t give it. Consider Amazon, where you’ll see titles like Free Stuff for Seniors and Make Life Better for Seniors —but not a single Free Advice from Seniors or Seniors Make Life Better. Sure, some programs out there pair “surrogate grandparents” with kids, but good luck finding one that pairs them with young and middle-aged adults.

All this strikes me as a giant missed opportunity.

Even though I’m lucky enough to still have my parents, whom I adore, I’ve always enjoyed friendships with people a generation or two older than I am. There are fewer hang-ups with non-parents, as you might guess, and much less of a chance that my stubborn side will get in the way of lessons I might learn. Not that I go into these friendships looking for lessons—but they keep happening anyway.

Lessons in integrity: Judy, my favorite high school English teacher, stayed in touch with me for most of the rest of her long life. A lover of Shakespeare, feminism and unicorns when none of those were quite in vogue, she never downplayed her enthusiasms to seem “cool.” Not only was Judy rewarded with the respect of adults and students, she was free of the angst that comes from trying to be what you’re not.

Lessons in gratitude: Ruth was the first friend I made as a young reporter in California. A widow in her early 80s when we met, living 1,400 miles from her nearest family, she managed the complex where we both had apartments. It couldn’t have been an easy life, but Ruth seemed to relish every minute of her day. “Devil get behind me!” she would crow in her Oklahoma twang when we played cards. She served me bowls of tapioca pudding and enthusiastic recaps of errands she had run, her face (as my boyfriend and I agreed in private) like that of a female Yoda. Looking back, I can’t help feeling that, also like Yoda, she was purposely teaching me Jedi secrets: how to be thankful for what I had and to make the most of ordinary moments.

Lessons in idiosyncrasy: I got to know Joyce, a brilliantly funny poet, during her final two years. Right until the stroke that led to her death at 93, she stayed up far into the night, every night, writing. Never mind other people’s belief that the old should be early birds. Her quirky hours worked for her, and she stuck with them—inadvertently shoring up my resolve to keep the habits that are right for me. (Breakfast at noon? Bring it on.)

Lessons in unselfishness: Since my mother-in-law, Anne, is delightful and since she escaped the heavy baggage of living through my teen years, she counts as a close friend in my book. One who still brightens other people’s days—with a smile, a compliment, a thoughtful email—despite chronic pain and the ongoing heartbreak of her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease. Though I don’t always succeed, I try to channel Anne when my own troubles (tiny next to hers) turn me crabby.

Lessons in curiosity and growth: John, my nonfiction-writing professor from college, is a prolific author still exploring new subjects in his 80s. It would be hard to miss the link between his vitality and his bottomless fascination with the world. Ditto for Judy, who began studying the piano in her 70s. And let’s not forget my late friend Lucille. At an age when many people would be content to sit and watch the Weather Channel, she took up playwriting. Not just any kind of playwriting, either: historical playwriting, which required both creativity and tons of research. As with so many of my older friends, her unspoken motto seemed to be: Live as if you have all the time in the world—but also as if each day is your last.

And the sad fact is that, over the years, plenty of my older pals have had their last days. I suppose this could be an argument for sticking with a younger crowd. But I prefer to see it as a reminder not to dawdle.

Recently I had the great fortune to meet Joe, an amateur singer, retired schoolteacher and all-around inspiring guy in his 80s. Within a week, I made plans with my mother-in-law to hang out with him and hear a talk he was giving on opera.

I’m not getting any younger, after all.