Prunes — And Other Friends of the Elderly

Almost all my middle-aged and elderly acquaintances, including me, feel about 25, unless we haven’t had our coffee, in which case we feel 107. ~ Martha Beck

As of this writing, I am fifty-nine years, four and a half months of age. In other words, we’re already forty-one years, four and a half months beyond my anticipated check-out time, so to speak. Perhaps it’s just that Tom Boddett left the light on for me in the Motel 6 of my life and I failed to understand the check-out time posted on the back of the door. Of course, that’s just one possible theory. “Ben,” I hear you saying (maybe just to shut me up for a moment), “that’s not old. Certainly not elderly!” Now, while I may sympathize with your horror at the mere suggestion that you or I may be elderly, I simply say this: ask a teenager.

I had a Spanish teacher in, I believe, my sophomore year in high school. There was no doubt in my mind that she was in her mid- to late-eighties at that time. Had to be – and not a single day less. If we didn’t want to take a quiz in class, we’d simply ask, “How are your grandchildren, Mrs. Norman?” She’d tell us she knew we were just trying to get out of some work, then proceed to go on and on about her grandchildren until the bell rang. A grandmother! How could she not be in her eighties? It was a well-known fact at the time amongst my classmates that grandmothers were old. These are just things you know at that age. Many, many years later, of course, I heard she had died in her mid-eighties. I rest my case.

Now, before you rush to your phone to call the AARP police on me, let me just say I’m not agreeing that the teenager is correct. Far from it. Remember the old joke, “If I’d known I’d live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself”? No truer words were ever spoken, at least in my particular case. I mean, who knew? Even today, I find myself in utter disbelief that I could possibly be speeding toward sixty like a bullet fired from a rusty, arthritic gun. Where does the time go? The man looking back at me in the mirror looks nothing like the guy I remember. That white hair is, after all, the closest it’s come to being blond in about fifty years.

Here’s a little of what I remember of that guy. When I was very young and even into early adulthood, my eyes reflected a lot of blue depending on what I was wearing. So, naturally, I wore a lot of blue. In fact, there was a guy working for Dad’s printing company who used to call me Blue Boy. I liked that. And I liked the idea of blue eyes, more especially since I didn’t have blue eyes. My drivers license lists my eye color as hazel. I like this definition I found of the color hazel: “Hazel eyes are a light-reflecting kaleidoscope of shifting colors encompassing a full spectrum of golds, greens, grays, and browns.” Sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it? Be that as it may, they are still not blue.

All this talk of the color hazel, of course, reminds me of Shirley Booth as the maid on the television show, Hazel, back in the sixties. As I recall, Hazel was pretty old – probably about my age now, in fact. I don’t think she had blue eyes, either. But she was just full of grandmotherly advice — and that is probably my point. I’m of an age that I never saw the show in color while it was still on the air. I don’t think we had a color television at home before I left for parts unknown. It was after leaving home I finally got a (very expensive) 13-inch portable Magnavox color set of my own. It weighed a ton. Only in reruns did I see Hazel in all her colorful splendor, though I’m still pretty sure her eyes weren’t blue. In addition, imagine my surprise to find that most of The Wizard of Oz was filmed in color! I felt a little gypped after all those years of watching the movie in black and white. Did you know that some of the fifties Superman TV episodes were also filmed in color? It was just a whole new world out there.

What, you ask, has any of this got to do with prunes? Patience, my child. As you are no doubt aware by now, I eventually manage to get to the point, or at least some point, somewhere down that long and winding path best known as my brain.

Prunes. Let’s face it, there are certain bodily functions that may not work quite as smoothly as we age as once they might have. I’d mention them individually, but you probably already know what I’m getting at here. And, we seem to have a problem discussing certain quite natural things, things parents seem to have no problem discussing with their small children. Parents are rather clinical about it, even, using all sorts of technical names for things. Do they go to school to learn this specialized language? We get older and seem to lose the ability to talk at all about these same things to the person next to us. I mean, when was the last time you asked an ill-tempered co-worker if he had a poopy diaper? Or perhaps, seeing the slightly panic-stricken look in the eyes of the woman next to you on the bus, asked if she needed to wee-wee. Bet it’s been a while.

I have a friend who posted on her Facebook page that her little girl had gone tee-tee in her potty. Imagine how proud that little girl will be of her mother when she’s grows up and discovers mommy shared that fascinating little bit of information with the world! Of course, by then both mother and daughter will have forgotten how to speak tee-tee-potty language and will have to find something else to talk about. This loss of language may simply be a function of the aging process, I suppose, though more study is probably indicated.

But, prunes. While prunes may be useful in our youth, even tasty, they can become our dear friends in later years. Oh, and naps. In earlier years, naps seemed a waste of perfectly good time. I mean, there were things to do, lots to accomplish and very little time in which to do it. Now? Naps are my friend. I think naps are my friend today perhaps because I’ve accumulated so much data over the years. Naps are clock re-setters. They give the brain enough time to re-sort all the new information coming in that’s in danger of being kept out by the old information. It’s an absolute shouting match in my head — this thought jockeying for a prominent place, that thought throwing a fit because it feels ignored. Come to think of it, prunes are likely useful here, as well.

Lest you think I have something against old people, perish the thought. From my earliest memories, the people I liked the very most were at least twenty years older than me. You know, old folks in their late-twenties to early thirties. And it didn’t stop there. No, some of them were far older than that, even. They were more interesting, after all, than the mental midgets surrounding me in grade school. I mean, how long can you possibly carry on an intelligent conversation with someone about the sum of one plus one? No, give me an old codger any day.

There was a time when I thought I wanted to live to be 120. Of course, I was young and stupid at the time. The thought of it now makes me shudder. Sure, there’d be the write-ups around the world on my 120th birthday with questions about how I’d done it, but could that possibly be worth it? I think not. After all, I believe we were built on the concept of pre-planned obsolescence. It’s part of the plan that we wear down and wear out. And I think most are finally relieved for it to be over and the time has come for rest. Imagine the additional havoc we’d wreak if we all stuck around any longer than we already do. No, I think God said to himself, “Let’s not give them too much time to think only of themselves.” Oh, sure, some of us do good things on occasion, but the reality is that a lot of time is taken up with worrying about our own wants and needs. I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one who does this. As a species, we tend to take the survival instinct we have for a good reason and try to turn everything we want into a matter of survival. You know, I’m not sure I can survive if I don’t have the latest and greatest gadget — like right now.

Just like this year’s Lexus, we’ve got to make room for the new model by selling off last year’s model at a discount. As a society, that’s what we do, isn’t it? As a market-driven society, we push the old out of the way so we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re actually making something important with the new. Witness nursing homes. Where once our elders were taken care of by their families and the community, we now have little to no time to be bothered. We’re too busy chasing the bigger/better to be distracted by the older model. We toss out years of experience – something that we already know works – for something we think might work better, though as yet unproven. It seems we’re easily distracted by shiny objects. The result? We’ve become slaves to our devices and work ourselves to death trying to get new stuff in a desperate attempt to keep up with, or better, outdistance, the Joneses. In the meantime, community disappears and our definition of family narrows to a non-inclusive little point. And when it’s that small, we feel we have to defend that tiny point to the exclusion of everything — and everyone — else.

A while back, Tom tells me he was outside doing some work in the yard. Some kids were walking past the house carrying boxes of candy for some school fundraiser. One of the kids yelled to another, “Hey, have you asked that old man?” When the kid came across the street to try to sell him some candy, Tom, who is somewhere in his fifties, said, “I’m certainly not going to buy anything after you called me an old man!” When, I wonder, did old become a bad thing? When, I wonder, did I cross the line myself?

Where once the experienced (read older) worker had a leg up on the less experienced (read younger) worker, the paradigm has shifted. The obsession with looking younger has reached a fevered pitch. It’s become so confused we now have advertising for men’s hair color that leaves in a touch of gray so we can have that experienced look while still looking vital. Using this logic, I haven’t been vital for forty years. My hair, after all, began to turn gray when I was seventeen. Sadly, this is not merely a function of vanity, it’s become a function of our economic survival in the workplace.

Vanity, on the other hand, is the time I feel tempted to consider a little nip and tuck here and there after noticing I’m in danger of taking flight as a strong wind catches all that extra skin on my face, simulating the sail on a hang glider. Then, however, I remember how I came to have the face I have today. Years and years of pain, sorrow, and, yes, joy went into carving – or, perhaps, melting – this face into its present state.

So, as society races toward improving life so much we’re threatened with putting everyone out of a job, I try to remember those old codgers who have figured out what’s actually important. Caring for others is important. Simplifying rather than increasing is what’s important. Remembering a time when community meant something is important.

I think I’ll hold on to my older friends for as long as they’re with me. I think I’ll try to turn into one of those older friends someone younger wants to hold on to as long as I’m with them. Cloris Leachman said, “Why can’t we build orphanages next to homes for the elderly? If someone were sitting in a rocker, it wouldn’t be long before a kid will be in his lap.” Of course, we have to slow down a little in order to sit down in that rocker. There was that brief time as children when we knew the importance of older. It was that time just before we realized we knew everything there is to know and decided we didn’t need older people, of any age, to tell us anything. The time it takes to move from innocence to arrogance is incredibly short, isn’t it?

I think I’ll relish also the other things that become better friends as I age – those prunes of life that make things move along more smoothly. Hello, naps. Hello, acetaminophen, my old friend. Hello, understanding the older gentleman in front of me moving at a snail’s pace. I already know a little of the pain of joints that do not want to be rushed.

And, hello, my dear, old friends, no matter what your age. When you’ve fallen and can’t get up, I hope to be there to hold out a hand. I’d like to think you’ll do the same for me.

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