Older Americans Month. Hmm. Who qualifies as an “older” American? Does the AARP proclaim you are “old” when their card for membership and all its discounts arrives on your 50th birthday? Are you “old” when the government says you can reap the rewards of your lifetime of work beginning at 62? Are you over-the-hill when you hit 40, 50?
We used to think that 30 was a big deal when we were 18 and that turning 40 was your “last hurrah” before the wrinkles and sagging body parts began. Well, none of it is true, at least from my vantage point, and I guess Jennifer Anniston is Hollywood’s example of an over-40 hottie. Yet somehow, she’s no Helen Mirren (Only some of you will appreciate that one.).
Five days per week at Elmhurst, The House of Friendship senior independent and assisted-living residence serving seniors for 125 years in Wheeling, I see the folks most of us would agree are “older” Americans. Hey, they are much more than “older”; they are our elders, our sages, our ancient warriors, our learned mentors, and guideposts who helped us find our paths as young whippersnappers. Sometimes urging us on, holding us back, and shaking their heads, nodding approvals, offering advice, biting their tongues. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, moms and dads.
Aging – it’s part of life’s journey taken by each of us, not collectively, but individually, writing our own stories, soaring highs and darkest lows, brilliant colors or muddied depths of despair. And, it doesn’t take a village to get us through the aging process.
Within Elmhurst’s beautiful walls we see the stories of the lives of those who have aged. It is in the things they say, the little things that bring back a flood of memories. A flower, a picture, a speaker’s words, a song, an old movie, a child’s visit, the aroma of a favorite food, or the scent of a perfume.
And you know, we are all becoming “older” Americans, every day. We are storing memories, choosing the right from the left lane down the road of life, on a whim or on a planned route. Some youngsters will look at you at age 25 and think you are really a grown up. Young women looking at moving into the third decade of life often panic instead of jumping for joy at the decades ahead and the endless possibilities for joy.
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Closing the door on the last child in the family as he or she heads off for college, a career in a faraway city or in a military uniform, comes as a shock as you turn out the lights that night, your first as an empty nester, knowing you can lock up and go to sleep without one eye and ear waiting for a curfew obeyed. Yet there’s so much more you can experience in your life; your time is now, at least until the arrival of grandbabies if you are so fortunate.
So, as I really look at the “older” Americans at Elmhurst during this Older Americans’ Month, it makes one pause and realize that no matter the pace of their lives now, there once was a spring in those steps decades ago with all of life’s promise ahead.
I choose to think that despite the frailties that accompany the body’s aging process, the sweetness of life’s yet-to-come adventures still lives in their minds – even those that are often confused. Sometimes there are only dreams of new adventures, while others find adventure digging in the soil of the gardens they plant and tend in the summer, a game of bridge, a country ride, or a koffee klatch with new friends made in their new Elmhurst neighborhood.
Those that may not have had an abundance of good experiences may now toss the bad to the wind because, as our “oldest elders,” they have earned the right to choose to embrace life’s joys now with grand abandonment. You see it in their smiles, especially when the kids from St. Mike’s show up for a song or an activity and always a hug to say adieu. I imagine the “elders” treasure the pure joy in the faces of these kids who come with that youthful spring in their steps to hang out with the “older” Americans. You might be 95, but you’re still making memories.
So, as we celebrate this Older Americans’ Month, remember that if we are lucky through good clean living, hard work, or simply our inherited genes, we can experience someone’s appreciation and admiration for a life lived well when we are “older.” In the meantime, offer those “older” folks in your life a smile, a helping hand, an offer to experience new things, and time to listen to their stories. That’s what happens every day around Elmhurst…we look at our “older” Americans and see them as they see themselves – the 16-year-old athlete, the young mother, the professional businessman, the teacher, soldier, the nurse, the healer, the volunteer, the Nana. The heart, where life and her memories are stored, never grows old, just older.
So when you walk by the beautiful Victorian front porch and you see an “older” American relaxing on the wicker, offer a friendly wave and a “howdy do.”