This is part four of a series on aging and ageism. This week I’m introducing you to Loyal, another departed fellow pilgrim, who was admitted to hospice with lung cancer. He was in his late 70s, thin with silver gray hair combed straight back. He typically dressed in khaki pants, a dress shirt and suspenders. In his prime he owned a trucking company and boxed professionally in St. Louis.
Loyal reflected, “I fought back when you fought every Saturday night for $10 a fight.” Then he proudly declared, “I’ve been knocked down but I’ve never been knocked out.”
Pride gave way to despair as Loyal admitted that his misplaced pursuit of adventure cost him his first wife and family, “All my life I looked for challenge in all the wrong places. But I’ve found that there’s nothing like trying to understand the heart, mind and will of God. I get a kick out of it! I only wish I’d known sooner. I’ve learned so much since then…and knowledge isn’t supposed to be lost, it’s supposed to be passed on… but now there’s no one who wants to listen…”
I asked Loyal, “What is it like to have cancer?” And he replied, “You know, I feel like I’m out of the stream of life. People don’t handle that word cancer very well so they don’t handle you very well either.”
I’ve observed in my 37 years of medical Social Work that our culture doesn’t handle aging very well either.
Linda Wolfe, PhD, in her website posting, “Introduction to Gerontology”, writes about “Gerontophobia…an unreasonable fear of, or hatred of the elderly, associated with the fact that someday people will grow old…a deep uneasiness, a personal revulsion to, and distaste for growing old… a fear of powerlessness.”
The elderly remind us of our own mortality therefore we tend to avoid and exclude them, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Youth, beauty and productivity also seem to be the gold, silver and bronze medals of human worth in our culture; therefore the aged, instead of being valued, are marginalized and minimized.
Not all cultures marginalize the aged. Dr. Andrew Weil in his book, “Healthy Aging”, reported that in Okinawa, Japan, “They work to include the oldest members of the community in the social fabric… in all community activities… Age is a cause of pride…centenarians are considered ‘living treasures.’” He reported that when a person turns 97 a special community wide celebration called, “Kajimaya” is held. He explains, “There is a folk belief that a long-lived person has attained some kind of supernatural power through her or his health and longevity and that others can share in their power…therefore people try to touch or shake their hands.” They seem like the “rock stars” of their culture.
And Dr. Weil observed, “A common cause of sibling rivalry is contention over who will get to take care of the aging parents.” After sharing Dr. Weil’s observations with my 24-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, I told her, “I think I’m going to move to Okinawa.” She replied, “Well, you better start getting ready then dad.” I rest my case. On second thought, to be fair, I have to tell you that after Elizabeth’s first day of nursing clinicals at a local nursing home last week, she came home all excited; telling her mother and I, “I loved it…I love those people.” Maybe there is a glimmer of hope for her mother and me after all.
In conclusion, Loyal may have “never been knocked out”, but he surely felt left out, “out of the stream of life.” Surely we can, “work to include the oldest members of the community in the social fabric.” If engineers were able to redirect the Colorado River to construct the Hover Dam, surely we can redirect the “stream “of our lives to include the aged, especially those who have personally invested in us. After all, “Time and chance happen to every man”, (Ecclesiastes 9:11) and, “What goes around comes around.”
“So if you’re walking down the street sometime; and spot some hollow ancient eyes; please don’t just pass by and stare, as if you didn’t care; say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’” (Song, “Hello in There”, by John Prine)