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Pay attention to old people

March 2, 2011

Over the last ten years or so, much of my professional life has centered around telling people’s stories: exploring and recounting the events of their lives. From 2001-2005, I was host of The Front Porch, a daily show about “interesting people from New Hampshire,” broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Since I became a full-time writer in 2005, I’ve continued to spend a lot of time telling people’s stories — for magazine articles, and for my book, Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives.

I’ve gotten to know some truly unforgettable people. And I’ve learned some lessons, some principles, that perhaps make me a wiser human being.

One of those lessons: Pay attention to old people.

We don’t, most of the time. Old people make us a little bit nervous. We’re not entirely sure how to speak with them — we try to avoid facing the obvious fact that they are, well, old, and probably won’t be around much longer. And they’re a not too subtle reminder of what lies ahead for each of us.

More than one older person has told me about the phenomenon of invisibility. We tend to ignore old people — particularly old women. “When my hair turned gray, I became invisible,” my mother tells me.

Well, I tell you, we’re missing out. Old people are worth talking to — and not just to be nice, in a Meals on Wheels sort of way. You can learn a hell of a lot by talking to old people.

They’ve been around a long time. Chances are almost 100% that anyone who’s lived that long, has a story worth hearing.

(This touches on another of my lessons learned in the last ten years: Everybody has a story to tell, a unique life experience. The more people I meet, the more I am convinced of that. But this subject deserves its own blog post. Watch this space!)

They provide a window on how life was lived in the past. I learn a lot whenever I talk with someone who fought in World War II or grew up in the Depression. And my relatively complacent worldview gets a shake when I talk with a woman or member of a minority group who was around before the Sixties.

In 2003, I interviewed jazz legend Clark Terry, then 82 years old. He told me stories that shocked me, about what it was like to travel with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the segregated America of the 1950s. They were constantly treated as second-class citizens — or worse. And at the time, Ellington was one of the most famous Americans in the world.

A few years ago I interviewed Betty Johnson for a magazine story. She was a singing star in the 1950s. Her records regularly topped the charts, and she was a fixture on network TV — the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show with Jack Paar, the Mike Douglas Show, and many others. At the height of her fame, she was sexually assaulted by a member of her touring ensemble. She never reported it because at the time, as she told me, “it was always the woman’s fault.”

I’ve also, from talking with people who were near the end of their lives, gained some perspective on death. In the summer of 2007 I interviewed Townsend Howe, an artist from New Hampshire. He was very frail, his voice was weak, and he used an oxygen tube to aid his breathing — but he continued to paint. It was the thing he most loved to do, and he kept plugging away as long as he could. He died about six weeks after our interview. He’d suffered a slow, painful decline, but he found solace in his work until the very end.

On two occasions I interviewed Kate Phillips, Hollywood actress in the 30s and 40s, and later a screenwriter in film and television. The first interview came in 2001 when she was 88 years old. The second interview came six years later, and it was a bittersweet occasion; she was clearly in decline, her memory was fading, and frankly, I didn’t get much information out of the interview.

I wrote about the experience later:

But this did not strike me as sad. It seemed rather a blessing: some of the tough realities of elder life were obscured from view. She seemed at peace. Was it because she was unaware, or because she was truly unconcerned about her diminished faculties? I couldn’t really tell. Honestly, it didn’t seem to matter.

It certainly gave me some fresh perspective on the end of life.

At the very least, we should all take the time to talk with our parents about their lives. A few years ago, I recorded a couple of oral-history interviews with my father. I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but I did find out a lot about him that I didn’t know. It helped me understand him — and myself — a little bit better.

And now, I’m extremely glad I took the time. In the summer of 2010, my dad suffered damage to the speech center of his brain. He may yet make a full recovery; on the other hand, he may never be able to share his story again.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak about my book at a local senior-citizen residence. Earlier in my life, the prospect would have spooked me, just a bit. But I actually looked forward to the event. And as it turned out, it was a great time; they were an attentive, responsive audience. And some of them bought my book, even.

So, pay attention to old people. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll learn some important stuff. At the very least, don’t treat them as if they’re invisible. Nobody deserves that.

Obligatory promo bit: Some of these stories — Betty Johnson, Kate Phillips, Townsend Howe — can be found in my book, Roads Less Traveled. For more information or to order a copy, visit my website.

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