When I was in my 20’s I had an elderly friend down the street in West Hartford, Connecticut named Eleanor. She loved me and adored my dog, Buddy. She also enjoyed drinking and when I got home from work around 11:30 p.m. she was always waiting up for me. We would have a nightcap and talk. She also watched Buddy for me when I went out of town. She was a neighbor and a special friend. When I moved away I eventually lost touch with El and then I learned she passed. That first friendship led to others. They started as mitzvahs (a meritorious or charitable act) then developed into so much more. I got to know Esther by delivering Meals on Wheels for Jewish Family Services. I got to know Ursula by volunteering at the nearby assisted living facility. Over the years I have learned many things from these women friends. These are my top 10.
1) They don’t want to be referred to as little old lady friends. They don’t want to be reminded that they are growing old. They just want to be called friends. This really is the deepest compliment.
2) Their pictures tell stories and they are eager to share them. The days before they grew old were full of family and accomplishments. They were not always infirm. They enjoy sharing their histories with you. They’ve had lives, sometimes hard lives. They are wise and engaging and I love our conversations.
3) They still want to look attractive. Every day Ursula puts on her makeup. She enjoys showing off her new outfits and bragging about how inexpensive they are. Even though she can move only one arm she is always dressed up. Esther was a shut in but she always looked nice. Every older woman I know takes pride in her appearance and wants to age gracefully.
4) Even as their world becomes smaller they yearn to learn and socialize. Ursula threw a small party in her room at the assisted living facility on New Year’s Day. She bought food, beer and wine for whoever dropped by. Visits light up her life. She likes to shop and go to movies and during warm weather months we go to the nearby bar and have a beer. She still wants to eat good food. Her body is broken but her mind is clear. My elderly friends enjoy people bringing the world into their lives. They want to know what you do and meet your family. They want you to meet theirs too. They may be older, but they don’t want to be boring.
5) Sometimes they get cranky and they don’t want people to tell them to cheer up. Spending days as a shut in or in a nursing home is difficult. Like most of us they have hard days. But like most of us, it passes and they get positive again.
6) They want to have some things they can control. They are often at the mercy of institutions and their children. Having a say in their lives is important.
7) They want their children to be honest with them. They want their children to visit and be patient with them. They want to be able to reach them on the phone. They tell me about the ways their family doesn’t make them feel important.
8) They like to sit in the sun. Being inside all day can be dark and lonely. Going outside, even for a short time, is an automatic mood enhancer.
9) Even in their 80’s, elderly women still have things they want to accomplish. Supporting them in these dreams makes them feel things are possible.
10) The greatest gift you can give is to help someone die with dignity. When Esther was moved from her home she lost her will to live. Once in assisted living she stopped eating and drinking. No one could talk her out of it and she willed herself to die. In three weeks she was gone. My Nana had an accident and no longer could speak or feed herself. She did the same thing. Being there for them without judgment during their exit is a tremendous blessing to them.
Having close friendships with elderly women has helped me get a good look at what it’s like to age. It has taught me to be more vigilant about my health. I have also learned how limited the options are for the infirm and how frightfully expensive it is to be in assisted living. I have deepened my compassion for them and for my friends who are coping with elderly parents, especially those with dementia. Finally, it has taught me the blessings of wellness and the importance of accepting what comes your way with grace. And I have been extremely grateful to be considered extended family to those with so much love yet to give.