Last weekend we went to visit my father in law who is now in an assisted living facility. Our son Andrew took along his cello and played a mini concert for the residents just before their lunch. Now that my father in law has been living there a few months, my sister in law Cristie has become a staple in their community as well. She introduced us to all of the other residents, clearly knowing them each by name and story.
In Tuesday’s with Morrie, there is a point in which Morrie realizing his condition has deteriorated to the stage where he now needs help in the bathroom to wipe himself. He says to Mitch that we come into the world needing help wiping and we go out the same way. The only difference in between is that we have the illusion that we don’t need the help. The point is we all need relationships including those where we are vulnerable.
Morrie’s wisdom came back to me again this weekend as I watched the residents. While I’m a proud mother, I realize objectively that Andrew is not playing at the level that should have garnered the excitement and praise he received from the residents. But like little children excited about someone dressed up in a dinosaur costume, the residents were delighted by Andrew’s performance. And I don’t think it’s because they are losing their faculties and lost the ability to discern. It’s because they are now not encumbered with all of the gazillion tasks that those of us in between childhood and aging call life. We are focused on getting the dog to the vet, cleaning the house, mowing the grass, getting our nails done and working to support all of those privileges. So often, we prioritize these tasks over relationship. And more often, we complete them to show we are competent, and sufficient without the help of others.
Younger people see old people as a group different from themselves. Older people see themselves as the same as they always were. They know their bodies have aged and they may perhaps even feel a bit wiser, and possibly more content. But they don’t see themselves as “old”. More specifically, they include an identity of the young men or women who hung out with friends, danced at parties, liked a particular kind of music. They reminisce about the things they once did not as something long ago forgotten, but as a part of themselves they still know, and more importantly part of themselves they still want to know.
I watched the residents form into social groups over the course of the visit and remember similar observations from when my own mother was in a nursing home. The women still group together in little clicks. They talk about relationships, updating each other on who is who and what “who” is doing now. The men are more likely to couple of in pairs or remain single. They watch TV or read. But if you look at the same gender distribution of a gathering of younger people, you would probably see similar patterns.
A little later in the weekend Bens father asked my brother in law about a recent handy man project they had previously discussed. My father in law wanted to know where his bucket of tools was so he could join right in. The reality is that his bucket has been gone for some time; it was sold with his house. But in his mind, he still sees himself as capable, ready to grab a screwdriver and do what he has always done when the need arose. He wanted to put into motion the feeling he has in his mind’s eye. He sees himself not as a man hanging out in a “home” until he dies. He sees himself as productive, useful and resourceful and still important to his son in law.
Children make a picture with their hands and they too feel productive. And most of the time, we encourage these feelings through our praise. We hang the picture on our refrigerator and say good job.
But in the middle of our lives we have the illusion that we have only so much time to “get it right or get it done”. We rarely stop to recognize that we are the same as we were as children. We need the same encouragement and permission to allow relationships to take precedence over accomplishment. We ignore this fact out of fear that our significance will fade into old age where we will be relegated to the home of productive lives passed. We defend against the fear that our vulnerability might be exposed.
Perhaps the alternative lies in seeing ourselves less as separate entities that shift from one stage to the next measured by our achievements and milestones. Perhaps there is value in retaining the child and younger parts of ourselves in our current states. Doing so would surely increase our vulnerabilities, but it would also afford us a proportionate amount of authenticity.