What’s Worth Knowing
"It's terrible to be disguised as a little old lady. Young people treat me like I'm a creature from another planet. I'm as feisty as ever, and you bet I know which end is up, but 15-year-old kids talk down to me. Can you beat that?"
If we overcome our prejudices and misconceptions about the elderly, we can learn what really matters in life just by talking with them, says Wendy Lustbader, author, grandmother and nationally recognized expert on aging.
In fact, forget the term "elderly". There is no such thing, she says. The word implies a group of people who have something in common when actually we become less like others as we age.
"A group of five-year-olds are a lot alike, but a group of 85-year-olds has very little in common.. we become more individualized," says Lustbader.
Imagine then, the infinite number of unique life experiences and perspectives embodied in old people all around us, a virtual treasure trove from which anyone genuinely interested in listening can draw profound examples of how - and how not - to live.
How much you profit by talking to old people depends on your attitude, says Lustbader. "Approach an elder in a patronizing, sing-song voice and you probably won't get very much.. approach with true interest and respect and you'll get a lot."
Use the same general rules of conversation with elders as with other adults, she advises: Resist calling someone you have just met "dear" or "honey", and do not ask how "we" are today. Avoid assumptions of any kind; don't assume, for example, you need to yell to enable an old person to hear you. Watch your posture and don't tower over those in wheelchairs.
Above all, "wake up to the truth that elders are just people who have gotten older with all the distinctiveness and interesting points of view as anyone else," she says.
Don't discount those living with dementia; they, too, have something to say. Long-term memory is their strength, so speak to it, says Lustbader.
"Even people who are in very advanced stages of dementia can often talk about their childhoods and youth with incredible lucidity," she says.
"Young and old typically have little but superficial contact with each other. We let appearances deceive us and dismiss what our elders have to teach us even before we give them a chance to speak. Thus, we forfeit the wisdom accumulated through lifetimes."
- Wendy Lustbader,
from What's Worth Knowing
The surprising discovery of her own interest in talking with elders launched Lustbader's career as a geriatric social worker. Despite growing up around beloved grandparents, including one with Alzheimer's, she had absorbed many of society's prejudices toward old people by the time she began studying social work in graduate school. Though geriatrics "was probably the last thing" she wanted to pursue, tuition was free for social work students majoring in aging.
"The catch was you had to do your placement in a nursing home. I remember thinking, 'Oh boy, what a high price to pay for free tuition'," says Lustbader.
Her attitude changed with her first work assignment, interviewing residents about their personal histories.
"The very first resident I spoke with completely blew me away," she recalls.
Armed with a list of cut-and-dried questions, she began with Mrs. Brown (known simply by staff as "the lady with the stroke in 208"). With a tired voice, Mrs. Brown gave even drier responses as described in Lustbader's book, What's Worth Knowing:
I pulled up a chair close to her wheelchair and asked where she was from. "Kansas," she said. How long had she been in Seattle? "Since I retired." What had she retired from? "Secretarial work." We both fell silent.
Then, Lustbader abandoned her prepared questions and injected herself into the conversation. She recounted her own trip across Kansas and remarked how boring it must have been to grow up there. Mrs. Brown came alive.
"That's not how it was," she interjected with a strong voice, somewhat indignantly. "We had a lot of fun."
She became more and more animated, describing the warm bricks from the fireplace that were put under quilts for the long, winter nights, and the smell of the bread her mother would bake all day, once a week, at the huge wood stove in her kitchen. We were both enchanted; she with the rush of memories and I with the sense of moving back in time to a way of life that had vanished. We stopped only because it was time for lunch. She grabbed my hand when I stood up to leave and said, "No one has listened to me like that in years."
With that, Lustbader was committed to gerontology. She spent the next two decades working with elders, including 19 years as a mental health counselor at Pike Market Medical Clinic in Seattle. Today she is an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work. She also lectures around the country on topics related to chronic illness, aging, and the needs of family caregivers.
"Older people have given me a sense of living life with deep perspectives," she says. "There I was in my twenties spending most of my time with people in their eighties and nineties, so I gained a sense of life as a whole."
In 2001, Lustbader incorporated the best of what she had learned from talking with elders into her inspiring book, What's Worth Knowing - the purpose of which "is to awaken people to the gold mines present all around them," she says.
Unfortunately, the golden wisdom of elders is largely un-mined in today's society. She describes a 99-year-old friend who lives in a retirement home. Completely lucid, the woman can vividly recount the horse and buggy days in downtown Seattle during the turn of the 20th Century. There ought to be a long line of people waiting to talk to this woman, yet she has few visitors, says Lustbader.
"I'm sad that in her lifetime we still haven't changed the culture of aging in America," she concludes.
Excerpts from What's Worth Knowing, reprinted with permission from the author, Wendy Lustbader:
"You spend half your life worrying about things that won't concern you in the slightest at the end. When you're lying in bed dying, you want people to sit by your side. That's it. It's easy to get tricked by dreams of money and success, but all the money in the world doesn't buy you kindness. You get that because you gave it."
- Edna Whitman Chittick, Age 101
"When you're young, you've got too much going on. There's no way to comprehend it all. Everything is coming at you at once. Life is a blur. There's an awful lot you don't appreciate about your experiences, and especially about other people. There's just too much to take in. Gradually things settle down. You're less distracted. You're finally able to decide where to focus your attention. You start to pin things down and take a good look at them. That's where you can really see what's going on."
- Terry Cain, Age 79
"What impresses you? Fancy clothes? A smooth talker? A big shot? It's all garbage. It can all go in a minute. When I was in hiding during the war, it was always a question of who you could trust. Would that one let you hide in his barn? Would he betray you for a piece of bread? That was it. I never got much school, but I can still tell you who's who. A professor isn't better than a bricklayer. The bricklayer might give you a drink of water when you pass him on the road, while the professor turns his back."
- Israel Grosskopf, Age 83
"I was too good at keeping grudges. If somebody crossed me, that was it. Finished. You could get down on your knees and I wouldn't bat an eyelash. I dropped friends right and left. No one could live up to my standards. Then my daughter wrote me off. I didn't come through on a promise, and zap, she was done with me. She wouldn't let me explain. I got a taste of my own medicine. It's been more than twenty years now and we haven't said a word to each other. I've been wanting to call my daughter, but it's too late. I let too many years go by."
- Jerry Hersch, Age 70
"I always wanted to go to Paris. Harry would say, 'Wait till next year. Wait till the kids are done with college. Wait till after we get a new roof.' Wait, wait, wait, that's all I ever heard. Then he went and had his stroke, not a week after he retired. You'll always have plenty of reasons for putting things off. Waiting makes good sense at the time. But later you'll see things differently. Trust me."
- Betty Seville, Age 76
"I wasted a lot of my life envying other people. But nobody has a perfect life. If you get to know people up close, you see their warts. We're all basically the same. Even the most confident people have doubts, and the most financially successful people have insecurities. I wish I had realized this seventy years ago instead of worrying all the time that everyone else's grass was greener than mine. It's a relief when you finally figure it out."
- Agnes Wilson, Age 94
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