International Day for Older Persons – a time to celebrate

This article first appeared in The Mercury (Tasmania) on 30 September 2020

I don’t know about this story revealing an epiphany, but it goes somewhere close.  About 30-or-so years ago I boarded a plane in Melbourne, en route to Cairns, to holiday and to catch up with a former school friend.  No thanks to my tardiness, an affliction I have since overcome, I was lucky to get a seat.  Single at the time, and in my early 20s, I was hoping for a seat next to a gorgeous young man who would find me equally as attractive (it would make the long flight worthwhile). Oh, the frivolity of youth (and over ingestion of American TV). But I was young once. Full of high spirits for what may come, I made my way to my economy class seat, which happened to be the middle in a row of three.

I glanced at my two travelling companions and was grateful I had a Plan B - a good book. The young man in the window seat had his head in a nerdy science magazine, and airline-variety headphones jammed in his ears (yes, we had them in the ’90s).  An elderly gentleman was in the aisle seat. I don’t know how old he was in years, but he was balding and had a hearing aid the size of an unshelled walnut.  As I squeezed my way past his sizeable legs, he smiled and said, “Hello, Love.”  I returned his greeting but did not want to converse, beyond pleasantries, with this old man.  Not at all. The young man did not acknowledge me. Boy, had I lucked out on the seat allocation.

The short story is that this flight turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, rewarding and meaningful three hours of my life.   The older gentleman was keen to converse, and I acquiesced.  He regaled me with a snippet of his life story. I had the privilege and honour to sit next to a World War Two veteran, a prisoner of war, a father, a grandfather, a man who had nursed his dying wife.  There was so much more, but space won’t permit the rest of his story here. His was an adventurous life that included incredible daring, immense tragedy, and equal doses of great and rotten luck. An erudite man, he was also a gifted storyteller.  How he survived to be ‘old’ (and sitting right next to me sharing his story!), I shall never comprehend.  This wasn’t exactly my Plan A; it was better.

I didn’t know it at the time, but conversations like this would lead me to one of the best jobs I have had in a long line of occupations. I am privileged to meet with and get to know truly, deeply, (occasionally madly), older people. When people ask me what it is, exactly, that I do, I tell them, simply, that I interview old people.   The quizzical looks tell me that I need to provide further explanation.  I add, “I sit down with old people and record their life stories.” I do a little more than that, but that’s the gist of it.

My work has taught and continues to teach, understanding. Regardless of background, heritage, circumstance, luck or eminence, every interviewee has told an incredible life story. Some are now affluent; some are pensioners. Others were affluent once.  But one’s level of financial independence is not a measure of how well someone has lived their life. My interviewees remind me of that all the time.

The common thread is that each one is, and has been, resilient. Our elders have weathered the big storms of life and overcome all odds; they have made it where others did not or have yet to arrive; to old age. They have encountered tragedy, death, illness, viruses (many a coronavirus), depressions, recessions, and world wars. Some have accepted handouts; most have not. They have blazed many a trail. They have loved, and they have lost.  They deserve much respect; far more than a society that acclaims youth affords.

I remind myself of this when the ‘old bloke’ in the car ahead lingers a little too long at the lights after they have turned green.  I bite my tongue when said gentleman travels at 60 km/h in a 100 km/h zone, and (sometimes) in the right-hand lane.  He has, after all, run his race. I will be in the slow-lane one day, too, with the grace of God, and fair winds.

It is International Day for Older Persons on October 1.  There is much to celebrate.

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