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Washington Voices

Learning from elders never stops

Thu., Sept. 24, 2009

A person is never too old to learn something important from one’s elders. Me included.

I returned recently from a trip back home to Florida, where I visited with friends and family, putting on 1,000 rental-car miles as I made the rounds along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and through central Florida.

One of the best visits – so good, in fact, that I stopped by twice – was with my good friend Joan, who is 85. Her daughter, Michelle, was the first friend I made when my family moved to Miami. Michelle and I had a lot in common, including being only children and sharing a birthday, though I was a year older. When she was killed in an auto accident when we were in high school, her parents were devastated.

Over the years Joan has told me often how important my mother was in getting her through those dark days. After my mother died, Joan and I got very close. We talk often and visit when we can.

Her husband died since I saw her a few years ago, and she’s moved to a manufactured home community in Sebring, where 700 senior citizens reside. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I arrived there, as I had some skewed preconceived notions.

I met several of Joan’s friends, and they provided me with a whole new education. Not that she is without ailments, but allow me to state that Joan ran me into the ground. Off we went to the clubhouse where she conducted Bunko, and I learned to play. We went to lunch with her niece, Nancy, talked a lot, went out and bought a parakeet and set up its cage, played cards with two friends at night – then started all over again bright and early the next morning.

If I had thought a seniors community was a place where old folks were kind of in limbo or in some sort of exile from their families, which I kind of did, did I ever have that wrong. All the people I met were quite connected to their children and grandchildren “up north.” By the way, north to them means Indiana and Ohio (a funny geographic orientation from a Northwesterner’s perspective), but the point is that they sold their homes years ago and moved to Florida for the climate and the lifestyle: They are there by choice. And they choose to live active lives, despite any illnesses or impairments.

In so doing, they take care of one another. It’s the best Block Watch I’ve ever seen. A woman named Sue is unsteady on her feet, so Ruth, who lives a few doors down, makes sure Sue gets into her home safely in the evening. If Joan isn’t up and opening her blinds at what her neighbor deems to be an appropriate hour, Joan’s phone rings.

Friends who bake bring goodies to neighbors. If someone isn’t up to cooking, casseroles arrive. They are a caring community, plain and simple.

These are regular people who had regular lives all over the country, and I doubt there’s a person in the group who’d be considered wealthy. For example, one woman I met sported quite a tan – not from sunbathing but because she earns extra money caring for the gardens of 15 residents who spend their summers up north. In the 90-degree heat and high humidity, she’s out there on her hands and knees, happily pulling weeds and ready to go out at night. She is in her 80s.

I also took immediate note of the value of the card and board games many of them play, beyond the socializing that takes place. The counting, the strategizing and the play sharpen the mind. I say this as someone decades younger and who struggled to keep up. Sue may be physically frail, but she killed me at cards.

My favorite moment with them came one night at Jean and Gene’s house, where six of us gathered to play golf, a card game Joan decided I should learn.

During the game that evening, there was a discussion about who was the oldest one there. They all owned up, with ages ranging from 83 to 85. Then it was my turn.

“I’m 63,” I said a little sheepishly. They all smiled at the kid in their midst.

“Ah,” said one, “to be 63 again.”

“Yes,” said another, “to be 63, but to know what I know now. That would be something.”

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn. If I am privileged to get to 85, I would be honored to have even a fraction of the wisdom and understanding of how to live the life that these elders have.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@comcast .net.


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