The Elderly – Wisdom or Burden

Do you have or ever had grandparents? Good. This blog is only for those of you who have had grandparents. The rest of you can ignore it and go to something else.

Mike (the name has been changed for privacy reasons) was 15, the youngest of 6 children, when he and his family were picked up by the Nazis in 1942. His mother, grandmother and oldest sister were sent to be exterminated. His father was sent to a Labor camp, never to be seen of again either. He and his 2 brothers were sent to a camp together. He spent a year in the camp. He eventually became separated from his brothers and was one of many people who was put into a dump truck to be sent to Auschwitz, where he stayed for 18 months. He told me stories of what the conditions were like in the camp. They were so unbearable that many of them wanted to die. They would willingly grab the electric barbed wire to end their misery. He was one of the lucky ones who was liberated by the American army in 1945.

This is a true story of my patient, who is alive today in his 80’s, who has been through some pretty tough times in his life, wouldn’t you say? Listening to my older patients tell their experiences in life has made me a better human being. Of course, this story is not the norm. Not all of my older patients have stories like these. But they all have stories. All have had some experiences in life which demonstrate the strength of the human spirit under adverse circumstances, sometimes extreme ones.

Nowadays, most of us youngsters, and I include myself among them, do not have an appreciation for life. We have grown up in a society, where we stress about things that pale in comparison to the stresses our parents’ generation and their parents’ generation had. I remember a few years ago I saw a patient who was 99 years old then, and when asked about her family history, she proudly told me that her father was alive during Lincoln’s time. Imagine that! To have someone in my office whose father was alive when Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg address.

Why am I telling you all these stories? I see that in this day and age, we do not really have any time for our elders. How many of you have spent any quality time with your grandparents, or even elderly parents for that matter? Do you get bored in their company? Do you remember when you were obligated to go visit your grandparents by your parents? And did you ever say, “Awww, do I have to?” After all, they were not the most exciting beings on the planet, were they? Especially when you are a teenager, the idea of spending time with your elders was the most boring thing you could think of, right?

Forgive me, I am going to say this right off the bat: this society is not for the elderly. There. I said it. Am I being too pessimistic? Is it really true? I am sure some of you may disagree, and I hope you are right. As a physician I see this all too often. I see my patients languishing in nursing homes with no one visiting them. What is the plight of the elderly in these nursing homes? I am saddened by the state of affairs of our nursing homes And, unfortunately, I see in my own family, in my own self. My own mother had to go to a nursing home because of developing advanced dementia.

How many of you have aging parents or grandparents living at home with you? It is a complex topic and there is no right or wrong answer. Back in India, and I suspect in other parts of the world, we grew up in extended families. In this society, nuclear families predominate. It’s not a question of one being better than the other. Rather, each has its positives and negatives. And my aim is not to discuss which system is better.

I have made it a mission of mine to spend as much time as I can to learn from elders, whether they are my parents (when my father was alive and my mother was in better health), my patients, or other respected members of our society. Every one of them has something to teach us about how to live life, about how to live in the face of all the stresses we have. In a society where in the coming years, the fastest growing population is the elderly, we will have record numbers of older people, but we will be ill-equipped mentally to handle the aged.

Think about it. How much time do we spend with our elders? Whatever time we do spend, is it just because of obligation or do we look forward to it? Even if we do it because of obligation, it is better than not doing it at all. Our parents and grandparents gave us so much; the least we can do is spend some quality time with them. And we may be surprised as to what life lessons we learn from them.

Let me make a request: Just do it. Take some time and visit an elderly person. Ask them what life lessons they have learnt that they can impart to you? Learn from the wisdom of these folks. After all, one day we will become them.

And I would be very interested in hearing from you. Maybe you can share what you have learnt from them with me and my readers.

Be Enlightened
Ravinder Singh, MD