One of the hardest things about writing a blog is coming up with a topic that you can write to completion. Your options are actually a bit limited by the kind of feedback you intend to get. You can write nostalgically which is usually safe and popular with readers. As Baby Boomers, we have certain commonalities that reap immediate and happy responses from readers. Writing about old movies, being the odd one out in high school, or remembering childhood “firsts” usually strikes a chord with readers. You can offer advice on aging successfully although few of us have the primary credential to offer wisdom, i.e., old age. Actually, people who offer advice in this area are usually fellow travelers along the road to our sixties, seventies, and eighties. While they may theories on how to save money, look younger, or maintain a healthy mind, these are largely untried theories until the author actually experiences the changes and declines of the aging process, personally. You can write politically which mostly gets you in trouble with anyone who doesn’t share your partisan viewpoint.
This past weekend, I resolved to sit down and write something, anything that would fix the writer’s block that I have recently encountered. Following a tragic week, I discarded nostalgia and comedy as sources for this column. Somehow, when the world you live in seems to be imploding, memories of the past seem to be a represent a retreat from the topics that really need discussion. Humor? It’s hard to find much to laugh about, right now. Politics is explosive, both actually and figuratively. As far as successful aging, I am hardly the person to comment on the process since I have been ruefully bad at checking things off on my retirement “bucket list.”
I worked for two decades for the Library for the Blind and Handicapped network. If you are unaware of this excellent marriage of Federal and State government resources, I can only tell you that is the very best service that your tax dollars support. Recorded books, braille and large books are provided to thousands of people with disabilities at no cost to the recipient. While the LBPH system serves people with a wide range of disabilities and across the spectrum of age, about 85% of the users are subscribers to the service because of age related disability. Most of the State agencies of the LBPH employ a large network of volunteers to record books (a very selective function!), to do clerical work, and to repair the equipment on which patrons play their recorded books.
The down side of working at an age-related agency is that you attend too many funerals. Saying goodbye to good friends and to volunteers was always sad but surprisingly informative of the lives that these elders had led.
Our volunteers were mostly members of the Greatest Generation, specifically members of the Telephone Pioneers who did our equipment repair. As a group, these men were raucous, teasing, and provided some of my most embarrassing and sexist moments. I always forgave them. I didn’t actually get to know many of them well enough to know their histories. In their eulogies, I learned about incredibly accomplished people with advanced science and engineering degrees. Many of these “guys” were decorated veterans and had contributed to the development of radar, computers, and even worked on the Manhattan project.
I learned more from people I never met but spoke to often on the telephone. They would order recorded books and then keep me on the phone because I was someone they cared about and, in no small measure. I helped to ride them of their age-related loneliness. Oh, did they have stories to share! They had loved through days and experiences that I could only imagine. One of my oldest and favorite people to talk to was a former First Lady of the City of Denver. I met her only once and she was everything I expected: a society doyen, dressed in Chanel with the requisite string of pearls. I am sure that I never would have crossed her threshold on a social basis, but I prized her stories of Denver in an earlier time; more upstart Queen of the Plains and less the site of Rocky Mountain highs.
Yes, some of my customers were prejudiced in a way that you will still see in some parts of the West. There was at least one man who regularly ranted at me about the ruination that Jews, Mexicans, and Blacks were visiting upon the country. I listened to his vile pronouncements as long as I could and then, one glorious day, I slammed the phone down. I risked my job by hanging up on him but, oh, did it feel good to act on my anger.
I will never forget September 11, 2001, when I dragged a TV to the front of the library so that we could all watch, live on TV, the destruction of the Towers. I was surrounded by people who had lived through other dark days in the nation’s past, most especially the attack on Pearl Harbor. I asked, and they shared, how the two events felt similar. I learned about another time when our country, faced with unbearable horror, came together and triumphed over unspeakable evil. As I write this on December 7, 2015, I can call on the memories that they shared with me and the lessons they imparted about fear, patriotism, and what it felt like to be called on to present a united front to the enemy.
As a storyteller, I know that everyone has a story to share if you are only patient enough to listen and to ask questions. When bloggers like me write columns on how to dress, how to save money, and how to flourish in our elder years, we write from the position of amateurs. As the new “young elderly” we are having a different experience from past generations. Most of us have a measure of health and mental acuity that is different from the experiences of the older generations. Yet, we still have so much to learn from them. The sharing of their stories with us and with our children is an object lesson in how the world has changed and how they have adapted to the changes. Sometimes the stories will come forth unprompted by our requests. In my volunteer work at my local library I speak to older women, especially, who advise me on the sadness of widowhood and the loneliness of being the last one left when friends and family precede them in death. These are sad topics but in the sharing, these women feel relieved of their burden and I learn so much by their willingness to share experiences.
Other people can suggest ways to flourish as you age, but only the people who have been there can tell you with any certainty what it’s like on the other side of the age divide. I take each of their stories as an unbelievable gift of wisdom and experience than no one else can offer me. It’s a tradition that I hope, some day, to carry on.