Who doesn’t love vintage? Glorious clothes from a bygone era salvaged from grandma’s wardrobe. What about retro furniture? Even cooler with hipster crowds: brightly coloured vinyl chairs beside red or green marble like laminex kitchen tables with shiny chrome legs? Who wouldn’t swoon over a Bakelite kettle with thick speckled cotton covered electric cord and a grass green sculptured glass fruit bowl sitting neatly on the sparse bench top?
Everything that is old, vintage, retro or antique is worth scrambling for especially if it’s an authentic, one of a kind piece in fashion, furniture and of course real estate. But what about old people? When will we begin to cherish the people who owned our retro items when they were new? When will we acknowledge their lives? Lives ripped apart by war, displacement, economic instability, tragedy and loss, intercontinental moves, decades of social and cultural change and religious oppression.
Stamina and strength are buzz words that many fitness trainers reinforce as we pound out our routines in gyms, studios and parks. Who would use those terms to describe the elderly people all of us must know in family and social settings? Instead, we begin a conversation about our elders with a huge sigh followed by a list of negatives. The trials and tribulations, the aches and pains, the physical and mental decline. The harsh realities of ageing are ignored by a society obsessed with youth and looking good.
When will we notice Aunty Flo’s hand knitted cardigan in bold 1950’s pure new wool colour? Not because it will be a show stopper with our new pair of designer jeans, but because we cared enough to find out that it was handmade with love. Or that when our mum got her first pay check she thought her little sister might appreciate a new item in her wardrobe. Our mum wracked her brains to read and follow a knitting pattern with no help from Google, despite working full time at her new office job, just so her sister could own something that wasn’t a hand me down. Or that she placed it in a wardrobe that accommodated her four to six outfits only, not a sickening one hundred and fifty choices of t-shirts, shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, resort wear, shoes, sandals, boots and runners.
Growing old is something to be grateful for. Old age accompanied with good health is something to celebrate. Some of our closest family, friends, neighbours and even acquaintances never make it to old age. How tragic is that? Sadly, good health and old age don’t always go hand in hand. When will we begin to truly support the more vulnerable of our ageing population? When will we stop the rolling of eyes and dismissive, disrespectful comments and learn to advocate and lovingly guide older people through this, sometimes frightening stage, with genuinely help and heightened sensitivity?
We have seen dramatic changes in quality child care for the very young and much evidenced based research has impacted on children’s education in recent times. Many studies have documented the importance of maternal health and wellbeing for the unborn child. Our attitudes to children, teenagers and young people has come with an understanding of the value of fostering independence and responsibility from a very young age. On many levels, there are new benchmarks for duty of care during these critical stages in development.
At what point will we be ready to embrace ageing and elder support with the same diligence and research that has been rightly invested in our youth? In the rapidly changing world, so many of our elderly are becoming invisible, isolated in their homes. Families, and certainly institutions, have not kept up with the changing landscape and needs of our ageing population.
We lump old people into simplistic amorphous groups. We blur the lines that define them and personalise their experiences, their creativity, their talents, visions, dreams and achievements under conditions in which many of us would never make over the starting line, let alone compete in.
What would it take to be really present when conversing with an older person? To look them deeply in the eyes and enter a world where time takes on a different dimension. Time that is not overtaken by digital forces. Time and space that is hallowed, honoured and cherished. Time to savour a feeling of accomplishment as a hazy dream took shape over decades of pain, effort and adversity shared by a community uprooted and replanted in circumstances alien, frightening and insecure.
What would it take to walk slower, sit quietly, listen carefully and open our hearts and minds to the stories of people whose skin has wrinkled and bodies have softened? To stories of people who have stopped running in races that have no finish line, who have stopped working jobs with never ending career paths and Jack ‘n the bean stalk ladders leading nowhere? What would it take instead to replace it all with simple pleasures like sipping tea and eating rather ordinary sandwiches?
The Hebrew word for elder is zaken. Rashi, the 12th century biblical commentator explains that it is a contraction of three words: zeh shekana chochma, he who acquires wisdom. Acquired wisdom, not bought or traded or utubed but acquired wisdom through ageing and life experiences that perhaps we will never begin to fathom.
Perhaps the time is ripe for all of us to make greater efforts to connect with older people while they are alive. The time is right to respect the heart and soul and depth of experience that each of them has put into their own unique chapter in the history of mankind. We owe it to them and to the children and grandchildren they have brought into the world. That’s you and me and everyone else who comes after us. Let’s start today.