How We Treat the Poor in Age Reveals Something About Ourselves

COMMENTARY: We must be present and available to the elderly, welcome them, bring them into our lives.

An elderly man with his best friend.
An elderly man with his best friend. (photo: Akintevs / Shutterstock)

I’m sitting in a vet’s waiting room while my daughter is having her pet seen to. An old man stands at the counter getting instructions for his dog’s medicine. He has been there about 10 minutes. The dog, a golden mutt, lies at his feet. Wanting to ask about my daughter, since she has been in there a long time, I get in line behind him.

“I gotta get this right,” he says. “He’s my buddy.” He has to give the dog one medicine twice a day and another three times a day. He has trouble grasping this. This nurse repeats herself several times, always cheerfully, as if it’s the first time. I admire that. I am also impatient.

He finally gets it. The nurse beams. I beam. She holds up one medicine and says, “Now, remember, give this to him every eight hours.”

“I thought you said three times a day?” he says. My face falls. Hers, amazingly, doesn’t. He asks her to make him a chart. She does. It still takes, and I am not making this up, another 15 minutes for him to understand when he’s supposed to give his dog his medicine. She smiles the whole time. Astonishing.

He booms out “Thank you!” and leaves. I step up to the counter and start to ask about my daughter when she comes out the door. I’ve waited about 20 minutes just to say, “Oh, sorry, never mind.”


Slow and Deliberate

When I told this story on Facebook, friends responded with their own stories.

Will Duquette wrote about an older woman he saw at a burger place, who very deliberately laid down her place setting: “I had the sense that she was being extremely careful, that it took great concentration, that she couldn’t do it any faster, and that it was important to her. It made me think of times when I’ve been horribly sleep deprived and even positioning a fork seems like a heavy burden, and I wondered if her life was like that all of the time.”

Beth Impson wrote: “I have become older and slower myself, unable to do things as quickly as I used to. It makes me feel loved when people I’m with are patient with me and let me do things I can in the way that I can; it makes me feel frustrated and broken if someone is impatient.”

Will Duquette’s story made Timothy Jones think of his mother: My mother now does most things this way, and I have to check myself when I begin to feel frustrated. She is able to do less and less, and has to have a lot done for her, so when there is a job she can do — like setting out the napkins while I take care of ordering the food — that job is really important to her, and reminds her that there are things she can still do, that she can still help.”

Beth added in a note to me that in her mother’s last year, she couldn’t do as much as she had, yet she insisted on doing what she could, like sitting at the table and cutting up the vegetables. She thought her mother would be relieved at not having to work, having worked so hard all her life. 

But no. “As Timothy put it, she needed to feel needed, to participate; she couldn't see that her just being there was fulfilling our need for her. We need to honor our elderly in the ways they understand.”


Getting Old and Slow

I’m getting older myself, and beginning to understand a little why old people move so slowly. You don’t have the confidence in your body you once had. You don’t fall as well as you did and you get hurt worse when you do. You take a little longer to understand a new thing when your mind doesn’t already have the wiring for it. I know older computer whizzes who find Keurig machines baffling.

The Keurig is a kind of test, in fact, because it became popular after now old people had grown comfortable with the world and its technology. I have stood, mostly in doctor’s offices, behind old people trying to figure out how to make a cup of coffee with this new-fangled gadget. 

They seem to read the instructions several times, and then reach out their hand to start making their coffee and pull it back as if they’re not sure. They read some more, and then try again. This can go on for a while.

I stand quietly behind them, trying not to make frustrated noises. Politely offering to help has proven unwise, because many old people take it as criticism, or perhaps as tactless reminders that they can’t do what they once did easily. They don’t need someone pointing that out.

How you feel when waiting for an old person trying to do something offers a good test of your attitude to others, I think. I say “attitude” because the answer expresses your real feelings, before the kinder part of your brain catches it and makes you think a kinder thought. It also tests how much you see others, for example old men ahead of you in line unable to understand simple instructions, in terms of their effect on your desires and not for themselves.


Impatience, the Refusal of Suffering

Dorothy Day felt this. She’d been dealing with a difficult member of the community she led, she wrote in her diary (published as The Duty of Delight). “I felt too sick to talk to him and so failed again. Impatience — a refusal of suffering, my own particular kind that goes with the work.” 

Impatience as a refusal of suffering. I like that. I’d thought of it as an assertion of self, which it is, but it’s also a failure to go through what you need to go through for others. Not just a kind of aggression, but a kind of apathy and indifference, and especially being indifferent when you need to give close attention.

In another entry she gives the cure. She writes of having been impatient with visiting friends, and prays “to be present, to be available to men, to see Jesus in the poor, to welcome, to be hospitable, to love!”

Particularly important here is seeing Jesus in the poor. The old, however much they have of earthly things, have become poor in one real sense. They’ve become poor in physical and mental gifts. No invention or investment will ever make them richer. They’ll just get poorer and poorer the longer they live.

As Day and my friends suggest, we must make ourselves present and available to them, welcome them, bring them into our lives. Even if we do that just by giving them space and time, like waiting patiently for an old man anxious to take good care of his buddy.