February 9, 2013
Today my clients are all holed up safe at home with their family members, watching as plows shift four-foot drifts of snow. I’m at home, too, unlike some of my colleagues, who drove in to their assignments here in the Boston area before Winter Storm Nemo hit and will ride out the weekend with their elderly clients.
These days I have a special relationship with the word elderly, as well as the words senior, old age, and getting older.
When I became an elder companion at the age of 56, I thought of getting old as something that happened to other people. People like my mother, Lisette, who at the time was 96. People who were retired and collecting Social Security. People whose penmanship still retained the elegance and regularity of the Palmer method. People who had grown up with McGuffey Readers and could recite the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from memory in the original Middle English. People for whom Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” written in 1923, was a modern poem.
Yet today, at age 63, I’m beginning to see myself as a senior, especially when claiming this status brings discounts at the local gym and pool. I’m seeing changes in the contour of my neck, though I’m not yet willing to describe my flesh as sagging. I’m spending remarkable amounts of time lying draped and immobile in the dentist’s chair, staring up at the ceiling and wishing I had been more faithful in flossing.
“For the unlearned, old age is winter,” says the Talmud. “For the learned it is the season of the harvest.” Last night, as the woods behind our house filled up with snow, I thought about how privileged I am to accompany my clients in their tasks of daily living. I am a witness to their harvest of life’s lessons.
“What makes you happy?” I ask one of my clients over tea, after we return from a strenuous session with her physical therapist.
“Oh,” she says, without hesitation, “my niece takes me to the paint store and we bring back color samples. I’ve redecorated this kitchen ten times over without lifting a brush.”
Ah, now I see why she has those paint-color strips tucked behind the chair rail in her kitchen. It strikes me that one secret of a happier old age is being willing to honor small pleasures. Perhaps she can’t get up on a ladder to paint anymore, but she’s still in love with color. She’s still willing to immerse herself in Benjamin Moore’s offerings of peacock blue, all the way from Icing on the Cake and Forget Me Not to Oasis Blue and Pacific Sea Teal.