When we hear about elderly people, it’s far too often in the context of frailty: health conditions (especially high susceptibility to COVID-19 these days), declining cognitive functions, chronic pain, and/or loneliness.
Less emphasized yet also prevalent among older individuals — sometimes to a much greater extent than in the young — are vast reserves of psychological resilience, subject matter expertise, mindfulness, and of course, wisdom.
One afternoon in my late thirties, my husband and I went over to our 95-year-old neighbor’s house for a social visit. In the course of our chat, she followed up on a subject we had casually mentioned in a conversation with her three months earlier, recalling the most minute details with pinpoint accuracy. Not only had we both completely forgotten raising the subject with her to begin with, but to our embarrassment, we barely remembered the rest of that conversation either. Her memory ran circles around ours. We were floored.
Nearly nine years ago, tragedy struck when a friend of mine who had been deployed to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army medic the prior year took his own life. Among his survivors was his elderly mother, who had lost her only other child — his older brother — just as suddenly only a few years earlier. Her grief was unimaginable…a heavier burden than most of us will ever bear. Did that spell the end of any real joy for her? Did it set her on a trajectory of eternal misery?
As it turns out, no. She surrounded herself with friends. She tended to his surviving daughter and ex-wife, who were also reeling from this devastating loss. She immersed herself in community affairs and hobbies. She read voraciously. She spent time in nature. She focused on what she still had and could be grateful for. Eventually, she found ways to experience some semblance of normalcy again. A couple of years ago, she had a blast celebrating her 90th birthday with a bunch of people she knew. Her inner strength is nothing short of astounding.
We’ve been corresponding by mail periodically since my friend’s passing. Although she and I never knew each other well, having previously spoken only at the wedding of one of her sons and the memorial service of the other, we developed a rapport that continues to grow. She remains as astute and inspiring as ever.
Nothing can restore her sons to life, but her intentionality and mighty spirit have kept her days life-affirming nevertheless. I think my late friend would be pleased to know that I’ve stayed in touch with his mom over all these years. It’s a concrete way for me to honor him on an ongoing basis.
It’s my turn to write her a letter, and I’m planning to pen it using a longtime favorite from my collection of printer-friendly stationery: “Ivy Corners” from Geographics. At less than $10 for 100 full-color, bleed-resistant 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, this paper pack has offered the best bang for my stationery buck over the years. I love the way it unites the look of aged parchment with botanical flourishes. Not only does this design remain available on the Geographics website as of now, but it’s also had staying power as a Staples staple (See what I did there?)…in fact, Staples was where I originally bought it back in 2008.
If there were ever a moment to write to an elderly person, it’s now. Do you know a senior citizen with a birthday coming up? Has an older person in your circle recently experienced a loss? Or is there someone you can simply check up on with a friendly couple of paragraphs just to see how they’re managing in these crazy times? Reaching out for its own sake, in the absence of any specific occasion, can sometimes be even more meaningful.
Not only can a thoughtful card or note help to alleviate the social isolation so many elderly individuals are experiencing more than ever in these quarantine days — in their own homes and in assisted living facilities — but you may be surprised by what you end up gaining in return.