“Oh, weaker resistance, slower reflexes, Amycus,” said Dumbledore. “Old age, in short… one day, perhaps it will happen to you… if you are lucky.”
- J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”
As college students, we often spend the majority of our time around people our own age. Living in dorms, spending Shabbat on campus, attending events created and staffed by our peers, it can be hard to remember that the world is not made up entirely of 18-22 year olds. We have rich, stimulating discussions in our courses and hear lectures from thought-provoking speakers, but meaningful dialogues and interactions with people of other ages, particularly with older adults, are harder to come by.
Old age is not easy for people to confront. The Torah commands us to “Rise up before the aged, and glorify the elder,” (Leviticus 19:32) and often refers to national leaders simply as “elders.” However, Jewish tradition is not blind to the challenges of old age; the Talmud in Erchin 19b (as translated in Jastrow’s dictionary) quotes a less reverent description of old age; “Chizkiyah says, people say ‘an old man in the house is a snare (obstacle) in the house.” (Interestingly, the rest of the proverb continues that an old woman brings benefit to the house.) While acknowledging the life experience and perspective older people have, we all know that interacting with older people is hard. It is hard to see people you care about lose their memory or their physical abilities. It is painful to watch a person who was once an active parent, professional, volunteer or intellectual become more dependent on others and limited in his or her activities. Perhaps even more difficult, is the way interacting with elderly people forces you to confront your own mortality and to confront the fact that old age will happen to you too.
To be direct: You (and I) are going to be old one day. Hopefully. What’s more, that day is coming a whole lot sooner than we invincible twenty-somethings imagine. It’s not easy to imagine being old; as a centenarian I was visiting recently put it to me, “When you’re old, you can’t do what you want. You have to do what other people want.” Especially for people who are considered “old old” (A real demographic term for people over 85. Google it.), old age brings severe limitations. Even when your mind is intact, bodies wear out, tire easily and prevent their inhabitants from activities they would like to do. Physical limitations lead to loss of independence, to inability to walk outside, shower or prepare meals alone. In other words, as my friend succinctly put it, “You can’t do what you want.”
The really scary truth is, while we’d all love to imagine that we’ll be as sharp as ever for the rest of our lives, as we age, the risk of dementia and memory are actually fairly high. For just one example, for people lucky enough to live past age 85, the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease reach about 50%. As Shakespeare beautifully described the decreasing judgment and reasoning abilities of old age through the mouth of his character the aging King Lear, “Pray, do not mock me/I am a very foolish fond old man, /Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;/ And, to deal plainly, /I fear I am not in my perfect mind.” (King Lear [2.7.70-4])
Ruminating about the challenges of old age can be depressing, but it is actually quite important. As students we tend to be relatively unattached and have more flexible time. We are in the perfect position to visit older people, and perhaps relieve some of their loneliness. But forming meaningful relationships with older people has an important benefit for us too. Despite what the clothing store might tell us, no one stays 21 forever. Being cognizant of the limited time we have is a great incentive to plan ambitious goals, and start fulfilling them. When you spend time with older people you remember that you won’t have the capabilities to climb Mt. Everest, volunteer with the homeless, read or write great literature forever. So get going now- life is just too short for TV reruns.