I recently attended an indoor public event and sitting in the audience off to my right, directly in view, was an old man in a wheelchair. Can you picture him?

Last week, in downtown Oak Park, I noticed an old woman walking slowly on the sidewalk, hunched over her walker. Can you picture her?

What age was the man you pictured? 50? 70? 85? Was he bald?

Did the woman you pictured have white hair? Was she slowing you down in a grocery store checkout line?

In my brief description above, I used the terms “old man” and “old woman.” If I had used “elder,” would that have changed your mental image? Did you see either of these people in your mind as being special?

Many people, not everybody, look at an older person in a wheelchair or using a walker to get around as “less than.” Some of us may even pity them.

It is our choice how we see them, if we see them at all. Even if we are older ourselves, many of us make older people invisible, especially those with different physical abilities. Some of us make ourselves disappear.

That older person in a wheelchair or hunched over using a walker to get around is different from the rest of us who can still walk independently. We can choose how we see that difference: Different bad or different good. Different ugly or different beautiful. Or maybe just different.

Different “less than” or different “special.”

It’s not the differences themselves that really matter. There will always be differences amongst us. That is a given. It is the learned judgments that we attach to those differences that keep us apart, inhibit our empathies, and hold us back from assisting the birth of the unfolding world.

Last weekend I presented a workshop at Sage-ing International’s bi-annual global conference. In one of the presentations I attended as a participant, we had to write something and then turn it in to the facilitator at the front of the room. I noticed a woman sitting across from me in the circle finish writing and then stand to turn it in. She didn’t quite make it all the way up, eased back down and tried again. 

This time she got up higher, but then semi-flopped back down. She half-smiled to herself in a gently chiding manner.

She had lovely stone-white hair and seemed not-yet-frail. The third time, she stood all the way up and strode confidently to the front of the room.

As I found myself staring, I realized that what I had just witnessed was absolutely beautiful. By not focusing on the “less than,” I allowed the beauty in. No, more than that, I allowed the beauty. Period.

One of the keynote presenters at the conference was none other than Dr. Bill Thomas, who not two weeks earlier had been in Oak Park with the ChangingAging Tour. Thanks to Wednesday Journal, the sponsors and all the participants, that unique event was a smashing success.

Dr. Thomas went out of his way to talk with me, and at one point he put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, “I just want you to know that our event in Oak Park was one of the top 5 stops ever in the life of the ChangingAging Tour! Thank you.”

I pass his Thank You on to all you readers and to all our local communities.

Marc Blesoff is a former Oak Park village trustee, co-founder of the Windmills softball organization, co-creator of Sunday Night Dinner, a retired criminal defense attorney, and a novice beekeeper. He currently facilitates Conscious Aging Workshops and Wise Aging Workshops in the Chicago area.

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