I am not proud to admit that old people make me uncomfortable. Having to spend time with someone so out-of-touch with our modern world and rapidly hurtling toward death makes me both anxious and a bit sad. As I get older, though, I have realized the importance of connecting with people who have valuable lessons to teach us if we’re willing to put in some time to sift through some minor banalities.
I recently spent a few days with both of my grandmothers, who are alive and healthy but approaching their late 80s. Not knowing how much longer they will be around, I made it a point to ask them as many questions as possible about their lives — their upbringing , jobs, loved ones, and most vivid memories. Here are a few things that struck me about our conversations:
1. They value life’s small pleasures
The highlight of the day for one of my grandmothers is getting to walk to the mailbox and then sort through her junk mail. As I watched her contentedly tear apart envelopes, I thought of my frustration when my smartphone wouldn’t boot up in under 30 seconds and felt small. I have the word in my pocket. I have friends, my health and limitless possibility ahead of me. Yet she gets as much glee from feeding the dog as I do in getting a job promotion, banging a new girl, or traveling to a foreign country. Watching her enjoyment of daily chores gives me yet another reason to unplug and appreciate these subtle moments.
2. They enjoy the few meaningful friendships in their lives
At such an advanced age, most of the people they care about are either dying or long dead. Octogenarians live lonely lives. Just seeing their neighbor in the old folk’s home or at the bingo hall makes their day immeasurably better. Often when I’m out with friends my inner introvert implores me to retreat to my apartment and read books or articles on the internet. Watching my grandmothers reminded me that the internet will always be there, but my friends won’t.
3. They are conscious of how fast it all goes
It’s the ultimate cliche that life is short, but seeing 80 years’ worth of living replayed in stories over just a couple of hours highlights this point in a way I thought impossible. My grandmothers both spoke about childhood during the depression and how different today’s world is, and how massive changes have occurred almost in the blink of an eye. Despite her devout Catholicism, one of my grandmothers advised me to “stay unattached” (her words) as long as possible, travel a lot ,and enjoy my life. No matter their religious leanings, old people grow to lament the things that they didn’t get to do and only all too late see the big picture of how to appreciate the power of youth.
It is a stupid cliche to say “live every day as if it’s your last,” because that would prevent you from building a foundation for a long and contented life. Spending time with my relatives has helped me a develop a more appropriate credo: “Live every day how you would like to remember yourself when you grow old.” It will happen before you realize.
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