Writer Steve Earles offers some thoughts on the value of spending time with people as they get older
Some years ago I rescued an elderly man from a house fire. That is an entire tale unto itself. But this is not that tale.
After the fire I met that elderly man once he had been released from hospital. He was faced with the daunting task of restoring his house to a habitable state. Fire and smoke have a capacity for destruction that you cannot appreciate until you start to remedy the damage. So for several weeks I worked for free on this daunting and unusual, but ultimately character building, project.
During the restoration I spoke to the elderly man’s sole surviving brother. At this point in his life he was resident in a nursing home. He was obviously lonely and so when he asked me to visit him I agreed.
When I did so, he was astonished (I live in Ireland, where, as the elderly fellow I rescued said ‘people very often have no word’. Our own house restoration experiences supported this).
The brother, who went by the nickname Skip, was a real character. He was blind in one eye, and not able to walk very well, the legacy of a long life on the road which included being the victim of a hit-and-run.
But he had a marvellously quick brain – not for practical things, but for books he’d read, poems, plays, films, songs, and jokes. So many people you encounter today give nothing in conversation but in Skip’s case it was like a well-spring of knowledge, experiences, and creativity erupting (because he had that rare thing in him life, someone who was interested in him to do it for)
Skip had never owned a house, a car, married or had children. He had few possessions. It was all in his mind and all of his mind. He was that rarest of things. He was his own man, owned by no one except himself. He was a creature of thought. I know that sustained him as his body gradually failed him.
So, I visited him regularly in the nine years or so until he died. I brought him news, stories, cakes and so forth. In return, well, I never knew what tale I’d be told, great leader impersonated, song sung, or poem recited. He had a job in the 50s ploughing spoiled bananas into a field for fertilizer. He worked for circuses. He told me of his dad’s sad death and the loneliness he felt (he had a talent for guilting me into staying longer). The list is endless. I loved our conversations, and while he was difficult at times, he was always kind and never judgemental. In those nine years he was never nasty, ungrateful or unpleasant. I can say that for very few people I’ve encountered in my life sadly. So, no higher compliment can I pay him, and after all, friendship is the greatest gift anyone can be given. Not that it’s greatly valued in the 21st century where people think facebook ‘friends’ are real friends.
I still visit Skip’s grave and he feels very alive to me. He lived life on his own terms and he saw our increasingly material world for the man-made falsehood it is. He was an extremely honest man, and truly left the world without deliberately causing any harm.
He also saw wonder in simple things. Stephen Hawking memorably said we should ‘look up at the stars not down at our feet’. In a world increasingly ‘experienced’ hunched over a device (look at people who go to a concert, and rather than enjoy the magic, are busy filming it on their phones); I feel the elderly have much to teach us.
My suggestion, and not just to the caring professions, is this. We live in a world where everyone under thirty (!) is increasingly ceasing to exist, so what must it be like to be over seventy?
We need to respect and value the elderly, for people are what we perceive them to be. If we see them as assets, then they will be. We all have value, including the elderly, who deserve respect, love, kindness and friendship, as do we all. We are all human, cut us and we bleed. It’s that basic. The elderly need more than just been kept alive, a plant is kept alive if you water it, but that is not living. The elderly need more than food and shelter. They need respect, companionship, and a reason to live, a sense of worth. They need people to SEE them as they walk by; not being hunched over their phones ignoring them, where a simple smile or hello would make their day.
And it is up to, not just the caring professions, but all of us to make it happen. After all, the old person we see passing by will one day be us.