When we are children, there are things we can’t do because we’re not tall enough yet, or strong enough. I was always the shortest kid in class and for several years, until I gained enough height, teachers placed a wooden step stool under my desk on which to rest my feet so my legs, otherwise dangling in space, wouldn’t go numb.
Mom or dad helped out when I couldn’t lift or reach something, and they would carry me when the walk was long and I got tired.
We reach adulthood and for many decades there is little we cannot do. We “tote that barge and lift that bale” without thinking about it. We run for the bus, play a few sets of tennis before walking the miles of supermarket aisles and then go dancing all night. Nothing to it.
So it is a shock one day, trying to move a piece of furniture you’ve been shoving around for years, when it won’t budge. Or, you get a piece of luggage chest high and can’t move it from there into the overhead bin on the airplane. When that happened to me last week for the first time, I was slightly embarrassed to ask the sturdy, young man next to me for help, but he gallantly pitched in saying, “no problem” when I thanked him. At our destination, he retrieved my bag without my asking.
It is as though my strength has disappeared in a twinkling. As if yesterday I could do it and today I can’t.
Anyone who has ever changed planes in Atlanta knows the million-mile walk to the train to get to another concourse. On my way to Texas last week, that walk was longer than it’s ever been - in feel, if not reality - and pulling my bag along behind me felt as though I was hauling a boulder to Austin. So much so that when one of those electric carts beeped up beside me, I hopped aboard. Another aging first. I was relieved to see that several people a lot younger I am were also taking the easy rider.
Inevitably, as we get older, our capabilities wane and although it is hard for me, as on the airplane, to rely on the kindnesses of strangers, it is best I believe to ask for help, return a polite thank you and move on. Few will refuse and in my case, I have a lifetime of practice in asking strangers to retrieve items from the top shelf in supermarkets.
That doesn’t mean, in this case, that a class in strength training might not be in order (and I may look into that when I have finished the move to Maine), but nothing will return the strength of a 25-year-old to someone who is 65 and older.
Elders and children have many things in common, and although our culture makes great efforts to protect and accommodate kids, there are few - airport electric carts notwithstanding - for elders.
More often than not it is I, not a teenager or adult, who stands up in the subway so an elder may sit. My local neighborhood association is still fighting the Department of Transportation to extend the length of the green light at the corner so elders can get across the wide avenue without fear of becoming accident statistics. These efforts, over more than a decade, have so far been in vain.
As elders’ capabilities decline, there are simple accommodations that can be made. I spread housecleaning over seven days now instead of charging through all of it on Saturday mornings as I had done for a lifetime. I’ve been making additional trips to and from the markets in the past couple of years since I’ve found I can’t carry as much weight as I once did.
But communities and the culture must do their part too to ease the way for elders - as they do for children. It’s the right thing to do.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: I am off to Maine tomorrow, Tuesday morning, until the end of the week. As with my trip to Texas, several bloggers will be filling in for me. Please welcome them, leave lots of comments for them and do visit their blogs.]