I had a horrifying realization the other day. It’s one of those things that you should spot right away because it’s right in front of you, but somehow even with all those clues I was maintaining an old and dangerous idea.
If you were to ask me how my essentially never-unhappy father could possibly be depressed, I would answer that the only thing I could imagine doing that would be prolonged isolation. He just loves people too much. He loves to talk, he’s a great joker and he’s just a generally super-helpful person. And then it struck me.
There had been a bit of a pattern forming around Dad. I can always feel when one of those realizations is coming–it’s quite distinctive. A few times while I was over doing my daily visit I noticed that Dad wasn’t participating like he usually does. He hadn’t added many jokes lately. Just something was… off. At first I attributed it to his stroke and then I realized that he looked sad for the first time in my life.
Sadness was so odd–so strange, so baffling–that it really stood out. And then I realized that through body language he’s told us what’s happening. He used to try to participate, but with his hearing aids that’s hard. We can use our brains and ears to hone in on individual speakers in a busy room but people with hearing aids generally can’t.
They aid delivers a different sound pattern to their brain than their ear did, and so they can’t do the filtering with their old wiring. And so my Dad–and I’m sure many others–eventually gave up. So now that he’s not making the effort we didn’t know we needed to change what we were doing. We have left him essentially alone in every room even if he’s with people. And I said, the only thing I can ever imagine making my Dad sad is if he can’t engage with the human beings he’s always loved so much.
The moment I realized that I was driving to my parents to play cards with my Dad. It’s one on one, he can hear me no problem, and he loves beating me at crib–which he often does. Two deals in and there’s my smiling Dad back, making jokes, teasing me, teasing my Mom and seeming younger and less like a stroke victim every hand. My only regret was that I couldn’t plan for it and I only had time for one game. But I’ll be playing against him again tomorrow.
I now know at family gatherings, my Dad hasn’t lost interest. It’s just too difficult. So from now on I’m his crowd-Sherpa. I’m going to lead him through those events so that he knows what’s going on. Even if it’s mostly just him and I–at least we can still have the same fun we always had.
I don’t think older people would decline anywhere near as much if they were engaged with often. Too many institutional seniors homes look like warehouses and not enough like activity centers. We should stick playschools and kennels in the same facility as seniors and get all the love-sharers and fun-havers in one place.
When you see older people on the street remember: there is a lifetime of wisdom there. They’ve felt all the highs you’ve felt and all the lows too. As we age I think we like to think that things get easier but life is pretty consistently steep throughout all ages. A great attitude helps, but you might still have to carry your urine–or your lungs–in a container with you. Getting old is not for the weak. It’s some heavy lifting.
I’ve always been sensitive to seniors, but this situation with my Dad has really raised my awareness. So from this point forward I hope you will join me in trying to acknowledge and engage with more people who are not only younger than me, but older than me too.
We all have a lot to offer each day just by being ourselves. We should take more opportunities to do that. And we should make sure that wheelchairs, distorted voices or even hearing aids never get in the way of us being connected, generous and caring.
Have a wonderful day connected with everyone around you today.
Scott McPherson is a writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world.