Column: Remember the elders in the days of your youth

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March 20, 2015

Column: Remember the elders in the days of your youth

During my sophomore year in college I volunteered at The Crisis Center — an anonymous 24-hour crisis phone line. I still remember my first shift.

I sat nervously at my desk waiting to talk to a teen who, based on my 42 hours of training, was probably battling depression, bullying or abuse. “Am I really qualified for this?” I wondered.

Ring. The first call came in. My supervisor gave me that go-ahead nod. I exhaled and picked up the phone.

“Crisis Center,” I said doubtfully. “This is Emma (we were required to use fake names) . . . erm, can I help you?”

“Oh, you must be new,” said an old man with a cheery voice. “I don’t recognize your voice. My name is John, and I want to tell you about my CD collection.”

Wait, what? Why would an old man call the crisis line? And why would he call to talk about something as mundane as antiquated music files? I’m a ’90s kid. IPods are all I know. I kept trying to find the underlying issue that he might be too nervous to bring up but soon realized there wasn’t one — unless you count loneliness.

As I hung up the phone, I was convicted. John didn’t care about his CDs. He just needed a reason to call because, really, he just wanted to talk to anyone about anything. He was lonely, and none of his children visited him anymore.

I shifted guiltily in my seat. When was the last time I called my grandparents? And how did that hospital visit go? Was it for a hip replacement or a bad back? Were they doing all right? My thoughts moved from my grandparents to the elderly that I always sidestepped in church: the old ladies who point to the newlyweds and joke, “You’re next!” or the old men who begin every story with “Back when I was your age. . .”

Over the next few months that I worked at the call center, I took countless phone calls from elderly folks who just wanted to talk about their favorite TV show or what they ate for dinner or their favorite joke. We even had regular callers who became friends with certain volunteers, and we had to set call limits for them.

These calls stick with me just as much as the serious suicidal calls because I put myself in the shoes of my elders and realized how frustrating it must be to have experienced so much of life and to have so many stories and opinions and wisdom, but no one who wants to hear it.

So often I notice older men and women being pushed to the side because people are not comfortable talking with them. Why not? We are all normal human beings who need meaningful social interaction. The elderly want and need to have casual, humorous conversations and deep, personal conversations just as much as the rest of us.

Talking to the elderly is fun. You get jokes. You get stories. And you get wisdom. And the coolest part is that the wisdom of the elderly doesn’t come from long and boring lectures, but from exciting, suspenseful, and sometimes sad, real-life anecdotes. And the main character, the protagonist — and sometimes the antagonist if they’re being honest — is sitting right in front of you. I experienced this firsthand last Christmas. I spotted my grandmother alone next to the cranberry sauce, so I asked her to sit with me and asked her one question. An hour later I was asking myself, “Who is this?”

My grandmother wasn’t supposed to have struggles. Yet here she was telling me about the WWII bombings she witnessed as a schoolgirl in France, her little sister who was thrown in front of a train, and the discrimination she endured as a French immigrant to America.

I was stunned. My grandmother was finally becoming real to me. She was not just a doting second mother who gave me chocolates and extra kisses, but an aged woman with a complicated past that shaped her present self. Her timeline no longer started 21 years ago when I first met her, but back in the 1930s when she was actually born.

I encourage you to do the same with the older people in your life. Find them. Ask them questions. And listen. Because their non-meme-based humor is rare today and their wisdom is even rarer.

Proverbs 16:31 says, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life,” meaning that if you have grandparents or seniors at your church who are still walking along the narrow road, then you have access to a flood of knowledge and wisdom that God says is worth “a crown of glory.” And it can’t be gained through a cram session in the Mack Library, but only over a lifetime of walking hand in hand with God through the peaks and valleys of life.

We mustn’t be fooled by outward appearance. Gray hair, weaker bones, wrinkled skin and a crooked smile house a golden treasure chest of wisdom. Will you be wise enough to discern this?

The next time you meet an elderly person, try picturing them with a crown of glory resting on top of their gray hair. Perhaps then we will remember just how precious they are to us — and to God.