I work out regularly at the Tennis and Fitness Center. I’ve been a member there for many years, and I love their Yoga Centre. One day last week, as I passed the front desk to flash my membership card at the small entry turnstile, I was slowed by the older woman in front of me. She walked with a cane and was slightly hobbled.
It was early morning, she was bundled up, and her scarf covered dark vibrant hair. She was reaching for her membership card and keeping her balance and holding her cane all at the same time.
She looked up at me. Her eyes smiled yet her mouth grimaced just a bit, wrinkles at the edges of both. The flash of a slightly quizzical look moved across her face. Her lips trembled ever-so-slightly.
I noticed all this in an instant, and then she apologized to me, as if she had done something wrong. Right there at the turnstile. Plaintively.
“I am so, so sorry; why don’t you just go ahead of me?”
Several thoughts flooded my brain seemingly instantaneously: Why is she apologizing to me? How can I help her navigate this turnstile? Turnstiles are inherently problematic for many people. When she used to play tennis, did she have a good first serve?
And there it was again — a mix of empathy, ageism and awareness.
Yes, a turnstile makes sense at a tennis and fitness center. It always has made sense. But that was in the past. The future is not how it has always been. By definition, the future is change.
I’ve been learning about the non-binary nature of reality, i.e. the spectrum. My kids are helping to educate me. Autism. Gender identity. Neurodiversity. And following my interaction with the woman at the turnstile, I’m putting health on a spectrum.
Healthy does not equal youth. An older woman who walks with a cane can be healthy too. Her presence at a tennis and fitness center is legitimate, and will be more and more so, given today’s longevity.
Every day, 10,000 people turn 60 in this country. The “workout” demographic is already exhibiting more and more graying hair. Pickleball is soaring in popularity. The Yoga Centre has added over-60 yoga classes.
But what about our mental image of healthy? Who do we picture when we think “healthy workout”? Because of internalized ageism, most of us see buff, balanced or beautiful.
That probably doesn’t match reality as closely as it used to, and that’s one lesson I learned at the turnstile last week.
Her apology to me for being slow, hobbled and differently abled, her apology for just being who she is, is still fresh in my mind. As if she had to apologize that her very existence was getting in my way, intruding into my life. Another example of internalized ageism.
The younger and the older can co-exist in mutual respect. The physically abled and the differently abled can coexist in mutual respect. Any of the “us and thems” can co-exist in mutual respect.
But it is more than just co-existing. We live in an interconnected reality. We all need each other to be healthy. We all need our healthy climate and our healthy earth. When people recognize how we are interconnected, they take better care of themselves, each other and the planet.
We can take important steps in that direction when we start to see the threads of empathy that connect us.
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.