I spend a lot of time with old people. I don't mean old like me, I mean old like 80's and 90's and on a rare occasion, 100's. And most of the ones I see are in their right minds and living at home. I like old folks. I like the way they say what they mean and after they say it, they don't make apologies or take anything back.
Last week I forgot to bring a birthday card to a woman who was turning 90. When she realized I didn't have a card for her, she gave me Hell. She didn't pretend she didn't notice or didn't care, because she did notice and she did care. She plunked down into her kitchen chair with her arms crossed over her chest and said, "Well Good Night!" making it sound like a swear word, "I thought you were a nicer person than this. Everybody else remembered my birthday." So I stopped by later with a card and she was thrilled. "Well Good Night!" this time as an exclaimation of joy,"Aren't you sweet!"
A few days ago, a woman misunderstood the statement from her insurance company and believed I was pocketing an extraordinary amount of money each time I visited her. "No wonder you always seem happy to see me," she said, waving the statement in my face, "I'd be happy too if I was making that kind of money!" When I explained that our visits supported an entire agency, not just the clinician who made the visit, she put the paper away and offered me a cookie.
Old men in this part of the country are very practical. Yesterday an elderly gentleman proposed to me saying, "I need me a young one with a good back so she can mow the lawn and weed the garden." When I pointed out that I was already married, he said in a flat, serious tone, "well, ask around. Tell your friends I have nice eyes, or something like that."
One of my favorite things about working with old folks is the compliments I get. It is very common for me to be mistaken for a teenager several times in the course of my work day. "What?! You have grown children? I thought you were just a kid yourself!" or, "Aren't you a little young to be a nurse?" These comments are wonderful to hear...even if a little later in the conversation the flatterer will usually admit, "My vision is terrible. I can't see a thing!"
Many of them, on first meeting, will exclaim, "My, you're a wiry one, aren't you!" as they squeeze and poke my arms and ribs like I'm some sort of farm animal. This is followed by something like, "You need to eat more." or "Tell your husband to stop working you so hard so you can put some meat on your bones." I normally don't tell people I run, but admit to it if they ask. The ones that ask are usually ones that ran themselves when they were younger. Believe it or not, running is nothing new!
One old gentleman I visit on occasion still runs the streets of Portland. He does it in Dickies work pants and a tucked in white dress shirt. He wears Walmart running shoes. I've seen him running, he can move! He likes to stop the young runners on the Back Bay path and talk running with them, so some of you may have met him. He always has a big smile on his face when he brings up the subject of running. "It's like a drug for me," he says.
I once visited an older man in downtown Portland who claims to have won one of the early Portland Patriot's Day Races. The way he described that race made me believe it. It went something like this, "yes, Joe was ahead and Jimmy was right behind me. I knew Joe always went out too fast, so I wasn't worried about him, but Jimmy had a kick. So we rounded that last corner and started up that little incline..." He gave a stride for stride description, including what color shorts he was wearing. He probably relives that race in his head all the time. I wondered how often his children and grandchildren have heard the story.
There is a 90-something woman I see regularly who has taught me a lot about happiness. She gets a thrill about every little thing that happens. One time she excitedly showed me a new bottle of laxatives her neice bought for her, "Look at the gift my neice gave me! Isn't this great?" and she meant it. She often shows me uplifting stories or pictures she likes from newspapers or magazines, and chuckles with glee as she explains them or reads them to me. She got a piece of corn bread with her Meals-on-Wheels once, and you'd have thought it was Christmas! She once watched a stump in her backyard with binoculars all morning, thinking it was a deer. She was so excited, I hated to tell her it was a stump. When she finally realized she'd been watching a stump for hours, she was even more tickled than she had been about the deer. If you ask her what the secret to happiness is she'll tell you, "Just choose to be be happy. It's a choice."