She waited nervously for me to arrive. Her daughter had told her that she needed to see me and that she didn’t really have a choice. She was standing at the front door waiting. Her sweater was pulled tightly around her for protection against the still cold February breeze. As I pulled into her driveway, childhood memories of my grandparents and then my parents flashed into my mind. They too stood by the front porch waiting. Waiting as we arrived to visit, or even worse, waiting as we left them alone yet again returning to the busyness of our lives. They would stand there waving as we drove from sight.
Such bittersweet memories seem to prevail for me whenever the topic of aging is discussed. I shook away these tender and painful feelings and turned my focus to her. She invited me into her home, apologizing because so many of the items that she had accumulated throughout her lifetime were already given away or sold. She proudly showed me some plants she had grown from seed. One of her many careers had been in a flower shop. She showed me how to grow ferns from spores, cautioning that it takes time and therefore patience. It is difficult for her to plant seed now as the tremors in her hands and arms can no longer be controlled for such detailed work. She refuses to eat or drink in public now because she spills so much on herself. She feels her choice is between public embarrassment and loneliness. Either way she thinks she loses. We sit in her living room as the late afternoon sun streams through her front window highlighting a few loose strands of her grey hair. This has been her home for twenty five years. In those years she married, divorced, survived four husbands and gave birth to four daughters.
Her voice trembles as she describes the death of her eldest child and tears appear as she explains how much she regrets the words left unsaid. She aches to tell her story. She aches for the simple human need to be heard by another living being. She smiles as she speaks of how in her younger years she had a weakness for men in uniform. Her last husband had fought in World War II and came home changed. She wonders if I am shocked at her sexual exploits as she laughs about some of her experiences. She loves history and hands me a book on China, wondering if I can read it before our next visit. No one wants to spend the time talking about these kinds of things with her anymore. Would I like to do that? It seems that when her daughter visits their conversations center on her mounting health issues, her limited finances, and her upcoming move to an assisted living facility. She doesn’t really want to move because that means relinquishing her independence but to stay in her home means more hours of loneliness. These hours alone are both cherished as evidence of her decreasing independence and painful as a realization that she is indeed alone as her life nears its end. She doesn’t feel she has a choice about much of anything anymore. She smiles wistfully and concludes ‘that’s just the way it is’.
I glance at my watch and realize that 90 minutes have passed. I ask her if she’d like me to visit again. She states that if my schedule allows, tomorrow would be a good day for a visit. I arrange an appointment for the next week feeling guilty that I can’t come back tomorrow or the day after that. She says she understands as younger people have such busy schedules. As I drive home a John Prine song about aging comes to mind. His song “Hello in There” explores the pain of isolation of old age. “You know that old trees just grow stronger. And old rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome. Waiting for someone to say hello in there. Hello”.
I have volunteered as a counselor for senior services for the past several years. Each monthly meeting the same question is asked by the program’s administrator. Can we think of any new ways to encourage people to volunteer? The referral list always exceeds the number available volunteers. Can anybody see one more client or maybe two? It is difficult to find volunteers for most endeavors but it is historically difficult to find volunteers to work with the elderly. Some authors refer to this reaction as terror management. Terror management theory focuses on the premise that people “are motivated to quell the potential for terror inherent in the human awareness of vulnerability and mortality…” (http://www.tmt.missouri.edu/index.html). Older people are vivid, and often painful or frightening reminders of our future. We are unnerved by the physical and cognitive declines and it becomes easier to look away and to stay away. We can manage our terror best by making sure we don’t look too deeply into their faces so that we don’t have to deal with our fears about aging. Out of sight and out of mind. I understand this response and yet I also see the enormous need for connection. The opportunities for personal growth and development abound in this situation. We can learn how to manage that terror in constructive and more psychologically healthy ways. We can take the time to stop to say “Hello in there”.
< Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.