I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.    

Maya Angelou

These days, my wife jokingly chides that all I talk about is death. This is not true. I was raised in Massachusetts, so I still talk about the Red Sox. I talk a lot about the two beehives in my backyard. I definitely talk about my granddaughter. But I do talk a lot about aging and death. This topic catches people’s interest and almost always sparks a passionate response. Invariably, after a few sentences, it seems a light goes on in their eyes and the conversation is off and running! People are hungry to talk about it. These conversations are a gift, helping me to become more aware and to change.

My mother-in-law used to live in a ranch house on a quarter-acre lot. Then she moved to a condo, then to Holley Court (now called Brookdale). Today she lives at a senior residence on the far Northwest Side of the city; first in the assisted-living section and now, because she needs 24-hour care, on the skilled nursing floor. For me, there used to be a very difficult part in visiting her — stepping off the elevator at skilled nursing and being confronted by six or eight people just sitting in wheel chairs. Some of them sleeping, some moaning, some physically twisted, some just staring blankly. These are the people I tried to walk past quickly, averting my eyes. These are the people I tried to make invisible. Then, 50 feet down the hall, I would enter my mother-in-law’s room and see a precious, sparkly-eyed, sometimes forgetful woman sitting in a wheelchair.

Recently, I questioned why the wheelchair gauntlet at the skilled-nursing elevator made me feel somewhere between uncomfortable and repulsed when I viewed my mother-in-law in a wheelchair, just down the hall, so differently. As I age and as I become more aware of my own prejudices about “old people,” I am better able to empathize, better able to see them as my mother-in-law, indeed better able to see them as myself.

There are reasons human beings live past the age of 50 or 60. There is a role we have as elders, an “age appropriate” view of the world that is different from when we are in our 40s. Some of that just comes with time. It’s important that we recognize our own wisdoms, our own abilities to change and our own connections with another human being. This is the gift of aging with grace and hope. This is the gift of aging consciously.

These days, when I get off the elevator at skilled nursing, I stop. To the people sitting in the wheelchairs, I bend closer, I say hello, I smile, I actually look into their eyes. Most of the time, not always, they respond; sometimes a nod, sometimes a few words, and usually they smile back, with a sparkle in their eyes, showing appreciation. 

I appreciate the gift they are giving to me: seeing how I make them feel.

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