By Jackson K. ’21
% of People Aged 18-29 Say You are Officially “Very Old” When You…
Turn 85: 79%
Can’t drive: 66%
Turn 75: 62%
Have grey hair: 13%
Finally, after another week of slogging through junior year, I was ready for another Saturday night. As I approached the building, I could see the bright lights and hear the blaring music. I could already smell the mixed drinks and various mysterious substances that coated the air. The night was young, and so was I. As I burst through the doors, I prepared for another rockin’ night in the Assisted Living section of The Forum, the most exciting retirement home west of the 280.
Once inside, I was greeted by the usual scene. The lights were on as bright as possible, and “The Melodies of the Past,” a Sinatra-dominated playlist my coworker had assembled, was playing at full blast out of the speaker system, an effort to negate the sight and hearing difficulties of the residents. The odor permeating the room was a blend of hardcore medications, chocolate chip cookies, and perfume from the 1970s. I quickly handed out the mixed drinks each person preferred: for Jerry and Anne, lemonade and cranberry juice, while Larry was a Mango Tango Odwalla® man. After that, it was time to host one of the house favorites: a game of trivia.
I spent many Saturday evenings in this way during my junior year, and if it weren’t for the pandemic, I’d likely still be taking weekly trips to The Forum. To dispel a somewhat common reaction people have: no, I was not doing it to serve a community service punishment for being arrested. I wasn’t even being paid. I was there simply to help anyway I can, which usually involved dispensing medications, hosting various events, or just spending time with the people in the unit. And, probably the biggest eyebrow-raiser: I was there because I enjoyed it.
Old people vs. young people is a classic time-tested rivalry. Whether it be horrified grandparents realizing that their angel of a grandchild has been swept into unsavory tendencies by adolescence or a random great uncle unleashing the infamous “back in my day…” speech on his poor teenage relatives, the divide between the old and the young conjures mental images of great misunderstandings in the minds of most. In this day and age, with unusually pronounced technological, cultural, and political differences, the generational conflict has been especially exacerbated. And why not? How could an interaction between a baby boomer raised in deep red 1950s California and a sixteen year old member of Generation Z who has never known a world without the internet end in anything but utter confusion for both sides? No one is immune to it: only a few years ago, as I tried to explain to my grandfather that “YOLO” and “SWAG” were in fact acronyms, not drugs, and I might as well have been speaking fluent Swahili with how much was soaring over his head.
Unfortunately, these rifts, oftentimes widened by stereotype, make many people on both sides perceive the gap to be insurmountable. This is particularly true in the United States, home of the most negative view of elderly people on the planet, according to the Vancouver Sun. These preconceptions lead us to rarely form relationships with older folks, as most Americans who are not themselves over 65 don’t know anyone at that age besides family members. While some of that could certainly be due to the fact that they aren’t in public life as much, it’s still a sign of how poorly we treat our elderly. As a result of society’s disconnection and disinterest in older people, Americans above 65 are the loneliest age demographic, Pew Research Center reports.
It was this issue that first motivated me to drop by The Forum whenever I could. When I was told I could only help out in Assisted Living, I feared that most of the people I’d be interacting with would be long gone, but to my surprise, most were still with it mentally. Stress, age, and injury had certainly taken their tolls, but their energetic and timeless personalities continued to shine through. As time went on, I began to know the group of regulars, until I knew many of them quite well. I came across a man who’d spent years traveling around Europe, bartending as he went, and heard from a 90-year-old how, as a girl emigrating from Portugal, her boat was nearly lost in a storm off of Rhode Island. These weren’t the clueless seniors they appeared to be; these were smart, bold, funny, relatable people who had stumbled through life as blindly as we all do. The difference I had with these people in age was mighty, but once I looked past that, the humanity we shared was much greater. It’s no coincidence that throughout history, cultures in all corners of the Earth respected elders for their intangible wisdom and experience, even if they couldn’t contribute much to a community in terms of physical labor. In our modern society, where technology replaces itself every decade and individualism has become king, old people have been unfairly shunned as out of touch, behind the times, and irrelevant. In a different, less practical perspective, however, the old become invaluable. They have endured life the longest, and have crafted complex personalities from the decades of mistakes, achievements, heartbreak, nostalgia, and love. Listening to someone recount the stories of their life is a humbling experience, a gentle reminder of life’s vast and mystifying nature, and of how foolish we are to claim that we understand it. The voices of the old are full of knowledge that we would all be wise to listen to before they’re gone forever.