You, Me and Social Security 2012 – Part 1: The Problem
You, Me and Social Security 2012 – Part 2: Solutions

Being Old: When Strangers Notice

category_bug_journal2.gif This is a story about how people behave differently with you when you're old. I didn't see it that way when this happened; a friend later explained.

It was Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving, and it was to be a short shopping trip – well under an hour. I got lucky, snagging a convenient parking spot in about the center of my three errands.

At my first stop, an attractive but way too expensive kitchen equipment store, I was told that it would take longer than I had anticipated for the four knives I dropped off to be sharpened.

While weighing my options, I got some cash from a nearby ATM and picked up the items I needed from the grocery. That still left me more than an hour until the knives would be ready so I decided to go home.

I started the car and put it into reverse to back out of the diagonal parking place. A little pressure on the gas pedal and – nothing except the car rolling backward down the slight incline into the street.

I braked, put the car in park, then back into reverse and tried again. Nothing except more rolling into the street.

Now my car blocked the traffic lane, rain was coming down in buckets and I had no idea what was wrong although the word “transmission” along with images of dollar signs came to mind.

Nothing to do, I determined, but to push the car back into the parking spot. I barely had the door ajar when a young man appeared beside me. “Let me help,” he said.

Nice, particularly since I was wondering if I am strong enough to push a car alone. He said I should steer and he would do the work. Just then, a young woman pulled her car into a spot next to mine and jumped out to help the young man push. It took only a few seconds and she was gone before I could thank her.

Remember, it is pouring rain. We were all getting soaked.

Knowing I had left my cell phone at home, I asked the young man – as I was scribbling down the number of my roadside car service - if he had one I could borrow.

No problem, he said. He tapped the numbers onto the screen as I recited them, then handed me the telephone. We walked to the other side of the street where there is a coffee shop but it was too noisy inside so I left him there while I went back outside to talk on the quieter street, thankful that there was an awning to protect me from the rain.

I was concerned about keeping “my hero” waiting and it took an agonizingly long time to answer all the questions the car service had and then to wait 10 minutes more on hold before learning it would be 30 minutes until the tow truck could arrive.

Inside the coffee shop, I returned the phone to the young man who was standing by the counter, thanked him profusely and waited by the glass doors to watch for the tow truck.

About 20 minutes later, my good Samaritan appeared at my shoulder: the tow truck driver had called to say he would arrive in a few minutes. I hadn't realized my helper was still in the shop but could see now that he was working on a laptop at a table across the room.

Thank god. For a moment, I'd thought he had come back to the coffee shop from halfway home or somewhere else to pass along the driver's message.

When the tow truck arrived, the driver – a friendly giant of a man who reminded me of Shrek without the green tinge – got into my car, started it, moved the gear shift around, turned off the ignition, started it again and the gears worked.

I felt like an idiot and on the theory that it's best to acknowledge one's stupidity before someone else does it for you, I told him that.

“Don't worry about it,” he said. “I get calls for this all the time.” Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. But it was kind of him to reassure me. Then, before he left, he explained what to do if it happens again.

I went back to the coffee shop to thank the young man and tell him all was fine but his table was empty.

Later in the day on the phone - my own this time - I related all this to a friend telling him that I was surprised by the two young people who had so quickly come to my aid – the one who vanished after pushing my car and the other who stuck around until the tow truck arrived and I was safely in another pair of capable hands.

It's not that I don't believe people do such things, but that "mine" were on the case instantly, so able and eager to be of assistance. And in pouring rain too. How did they know I needed them almost before I did?

“One word,” said my friend. “It begins with A and ends with E.” Three letters.


“Yes,” said he who is two or three years my senior. “It's because you're old.”

Immediately, I recognized he was right. Those same two people might have helped if I were 25 but probably not with the speed or the sense of protection I felt from them.

Except when I am standing at a mirror, I don't think much about how I look to others. If you asked me, I would tell you that its perfectly obvious with my thinning gray hair, little jowls in my slackening jawline and all the rest that I'm an old woman of 71.

Before now, however, I had not considered what kind of resonance those facts of my appearance have for others. Now I understand that it is easy these days to see me as a person who may be or is in need of help.

It was the first time (first I've been aware of, anyway) that strangers responded to me as an old person – that is, they took a certain action because I am old. It is comparable, I think, to the startling moment I discovered, at age 55, that I was no longer the youngest kid in my crowd and had not been so for a long time.

That was a transformational event, to see myself as unquestionably the grownup in the room for the first time in my life. From then on it seemed to me that younger people sometimes – only sometimes, to be sure – deferred to me in ways they had not done before, perhaps because my fresh perception of myself subtly changed my behavior - although that is conjecture.

Now, this latest incident of attracting a new-to-me kind of attention based on an appearance I had not fully taken into account is equally a milestone. It was a small event that on its face is nothing dramatic but requires a shift now in my sense of self. I'll let you know how it goes.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: My Father


How proud I am of that young man (and the young woman, too). I send my congratulations to his mother and father for raising such a fine son.

I guess I've been aware of this for some time and have shamelessly exploited my age when needing help with something heavy. People are even eager to help, like to hoist my carry-on into the overhead. My theory is that most people are genuinely happy to help and can give themselves Brownie points for being such good guys. This is one of those rare win-win situations. Note: this applies to one time situations. My guess is that there is a different dynamic if repeated help is needed.

I too commend the young people for their assistance, however, I am also very curious about this problem you experienced with your car. I guess I don't understand what happened there. What did the tow truck driver do to fix the problem?
Does that mean that there was nothing wrong with your car or that starting and stopping; moving the gear shift around and then restarting it temporarily fixed whatever the problem was?

The tow truck driver explained that sometimes when you hit a curb just right (well, wrong) when you park, even slightly, something can happen to disturb the gears (I did not ask; didn't want a technical explanation) that renders them useless.

So, turn on the car, put the gear in park, turn off the car. Turn it on again, put it in neutral and then the gear you need and it will be fine.

I may have the order of park and neutral reversed, but you get the idea.

Nothing wrong with the car that needs fixing.

One time I was in Panera's restaurant. When I stood up, somehow I slipped and fell flat on my back between the closely spaced tables. I found myself looking up into the shocked faces of a young couple. After they closed their mouths, they asked if I was ok, and helped me up. I had the same feeling you did; an old person who benefitted from the respectful help of youngsters.

That was when I decided to get serious about non-slip soles.

I saw a young man stop his car and help a woman struggling with her wheelchair get across the street yesterday. She wasn't particularly old. (Okay, from my perspective she wasn't old ...)

I find I get overlooked because I'm old. For example, I walk in the computer store and no one offers to help me, while younger people are quickly assisted. In a line of people at a meeting, the waitress passes me by without taking my order. Ignored.

Invisibility of elders is, of course, a common problem. We all have a lot of stories like yours. And I don't expect that to change.

What's new to me is realizing now that people willing and eager help when needed exists simultaneously with being overlooked because we are old.

Could it be that the difference is between needing help and not - and if not, we are invisible.

Heartwarming, reassuring story for someone like me who mostly only sees "the general public" in a rarely flattering light on TV. It figures it would happen when you didn't have your phone with you. I've carried one for years for emergency use and never had to use it, but just wait till the day I forget it ...

Isn't driving fun (not)? Ronni, I am guessing the tow truck driver was NOT lying to you when he said he got calls for this "all the time." I drive a stick shift, so I haven't had this happen, but I am guessing it's a glitch particular to your make/model of car that he really has seen before and probably spotted at once when he picked up the call. Don't you love finding this out in a rainstorm?

Glad it ended well, but you might want to Google your make/model and find out what other "genetic" behaviors are likely. Mine is trivial--dash clock fades in and out--but it turns out most cars of the make/model of mine do it routinely. Better to know.

At first I felt somewhat deflated when many youngsters started calling me "sir." Now I've decided to turn my elderly appearance into a positive. I am not at all bashful about asking for help early and often. I'm not invisible while doing that and the good results often contribute to pleasant days.

I have had similar help from young people, but I was not old then. However, I may have seemed old to them. Once when I was in my 50's I had a flat tire and a young man changed it for me. The other time I had pulled over to take a photos and got my car stuck in sand. I was only in my 40's then and a young couple stopped and pushed my car onto the pavement. I think gender may have something to do with it, too.

I get help from people of all ages and genders in the grocery store when they see me trying to reach for something that is difficult for me to get. I do think most people are genuinely kind and want to help.

Perhaps I have just been fortunate, but I, too, at all ages have been helped on several occasions by strangers, young and old. i thought, at first, that your friend's one word explanation starting with 'A' was going to be 'angel'. I can't say that I am a hard core believer in them, but I have had some interventions in my life that have been hard to explain, or at least remarkably fortunate for me. One of these resulted in my life being saved when I nearly drowned at age twelve.
Whatever the explanation, there are many, many good people out there who would never hesitate from helping out when needed. Kudos to them. Glad to hear it ended up so well for you.

I've experienced this and really have no problem when its respectful. There was a time when elders were valued much more than they are today and these actions I think are reflective of how that value was demonstrated then.

It's nice to see young people react this way. Allow them their measure of showing what they feel is proper and respectful, knowing of course that you are only as old as you allow yourself to be, unless of course your muscles, reflexes and joints have other ideas. :-)

My hair went from salt and pepper to white in my 50s. Soon I discovered politeness and helpfulness that surprised me. I certainly didn't think I was old in my mid-50s and didn't need help but, as someone else said, at times I shamelessly exploited the perception that I was old. In fact I still do and I suppose I am old at 74. I find a lot of thoughtful and polite people around.

"How did they know I needed them almost before I did?" How indeed, and how nice.

Love your story, and it reminds me of the Louis CK video somewhat (not as extreme, certainly!). He turned it into a funny story about an old lady at the airport and probably exaggerated some details. But he was so chivalrous in staying with her until she was safely on her way.

Yes, Louis CK, hilarious. "I wanted to help an old lady, now I HAD an old lady," he said (and I paraphrased).

Ronni, I have had the same experience but I have to say it is more general in Oregon than where I used to live, according to my unscientific examination of my new state of residence.

My rainy-day story has a different ending: My sister and I went to the beauty shop to have our hair cut and styled. As we came out of the shop it began to pour down rain -- and I had a flat tire! Well, nothing to do but to change the tire and I tried to do it as quickly as I could while my sister sat in the car, touching up her makeup. When I had finished with the tire and everything was back in the trunk and the rain had stopped, an older man approached me, I thought to offer his help, although it was too late for him to do anything. No, I was wrong, he simply wanted to tell me that he had watched me change the tire from the comfort of his dry car and he just wanted to tell me how proud he was of me that I had handled the whole process by myself. I was only seventeen at the time and I didn't want to be disrespectful to someone older than me, but I sure did a lot of grumbling when I finally got into my car to leave. Something in the tune of "damned old man just sat there and WATCHED me, in pouring rain, ruining my hairdo, grumble, grumble, grumble..." I can laugh about it now, but I certainly wasn't seeing the funny side of things at the time.

"It's heavy," He-Who-Mows said as I offered to take the ham into the house when we were bringing in groceries. I snatched it from him and stalked into the house with lighter packages hanging from my wrists. The ham weighed 7.37 pounds.

Huh. I just realized that when the guy in the car parked next to mine who was loading groceries into his trunk asked if I needed help loading groceries into mine, he probably was being nice because I am an elder lady. I hadn't thought about that before because I guess I still don't think of myself as being the age I am. Well, I'll take that kind of courtesy as one of the perks of getting older.

What a wonderful insight! Isn't it neat how those things happen? A small thing or comment from someone can cause a whole new bit of self-realization. Wonderful.

I ran my last triathlon 13 years ago, the day before my 65th birthday. When I signed up at the registratiion desk, as I was filling up the entry form, someone came up behind me and started doing something to the back of my leg. I started to turn and see what was going on when the woman at the desk said "It's ok, he's just writing your age on your legs" and I said "How does he know my age?" and she said "I told him" he does that for all the seniors" It makes it easier for the EMS guys"

I'm so glad they stopped for you. At least no one wrote your age on your forehead.

What do you do if it happens again?

Here in Oz, I am pleased and proud to say that I have been the recipient of similar concern and assistance on a number of occasions. A few months back I had a severe and heavy fall at a busy bus station. I lay there not knowing how to get up and feeling severely embarrassed. People seemed to be standing still. Next thing a young man of some sort of Asian ethnicity got me to my feet and sat me down. Next thing a lovely young woman who was a nurse materialised beside me and tended to me. I was in such a state that I don't know these people's names or anything else about them. I just know how grateful I feel towards them. I am sure it was my age that contributed to being given such assistance. However, these people seemed to me to be so nice and genuine that I think they would have helped any one of any age. I get sick and tired of a lot of things going on in Australian society ... but these actions warmed my heart and gives me hope that there are some good hands in which to place my nation.

Last summer I had a similar experience when my car died on the scale of a recycling place where I was disposing of my old pool on a sweltering hot day. Unlike your cool and calm head, I panic when I am faced with car break-downs. It was embarrassing, but the workers seeing my stress were so helpful. The young lady in charge let me use her phone and also let me wait in her air-conditioned office for the tow-truck. Isn't it wonderful that people are so kind!

When my back was out, when I could not stand up without a walker, people became very attentive and went out of their way to help me with doors, chairs, whatever. Same type of phenomena. That was four years ago and now I'm reasonably okay at 65. Short of a walker, I'll have to wait just a few years for same attention, when I genuinely look old--soon I fear. 65 to 70 seems to be a slippery slope and fraught with change.

I do what I can to avoid situations in which I look like an old woman who needs help, and a polite "No, thanks" is my usual response when others offer to carry my groceries or open doors for me. However, car trouble at night in the rainy Pacific Northwest is NOT one of those situations. It's good to know that help probably would materialize--whether it's because I'm "old" or not. It's possible that these Good Samaritans were simply raised to be helpful when they saw another person (somewhat older than themselves) in trouble.

Loved this, and especially the your realization. It brought me back to my own reflections about being called Ma'am - my first introduction to being viewed as old(er).

I'm not yet 60 so haven't experienced this kind of assistance from others since I was a waddling pregnant woman.

Thanks for sharing the goodness that abounds.

There are other "classes" of folks who are more likely to engender a feeling of protection from others..the young, females, the disabled, and as you learned, the elderly. The categories of those helped are based upon the perception of their vulnerabiity relative to the person offering assistance. Did you feel vulnerable? A colleague was explaining that he has offered numerous times to shovel a neighbor's walk for him (age estimated to be in his 90's), only to be loudly wved off. The young colleague was confused by his naighbor's attitude, but admired it greatly. It is reassuring to know that there are still gallant people in the world.

I know exactly how you felt as I recall that first time of truly realizing I was perceived as possibly needing assistance because I was old. I was probably in my mid-seventies when I began to notice all ages of people, including a few I thought were old (that was unsettling) deferring, or offering to help me with one thing or another.

I'm always pleased with myself (privately) when I encounter someone for whom I can make allowances or even assist. Also, I note, many of us oldsters, strangers though we may be, tend to defer to each other with a knowing slight smile, or head nod -- recognizing we're all "in the club" as we go about our business in the stores.

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