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Meeting Older Adults Where They Are

The other day, one of Arthur's former students commented on an interview we did months ago with Eileen Fuentes, founder of The SPEACH:

I was lucky enough to be one of Arthur's students at Hofstra in 72-73. In addition to basic Freshman English he taught a lecture course in the history of American Musical Theatre. I didn't always agree with him but admired his passion for the subject... Please send him my warmest regards and thanks.

I called Arthur immediately.

From our July 2012 interview

"A student of yours found us. A guy with the last name Rosenfield."

"Oh yeah? I remember him. What did he say?"

I read it, and then paused. I had an idea.

"Maybe we should get his number, Arthur! You two can connect!"

"No, no, no, no," he said, making sure I got the message. "I don't need to do that."

I dropped it right away, but have been turning it over in my head ever since. I was so quick to assume Arthur would want to reconnect with his former student. He can always use more visitors, I thought, and perhaps it'd be a meaningful conversation for both of them-a little moment in time, bringing the past together with the present.

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But that idea belonged to me, ever the sentimentalist, and imposing it on Arthur was a mistake. I should have known better.

One of the guiding principles of gerontology is the idea that aging is a lifelong process. By aging, the experts really mean living. We are always growing into our own. We may identify as the professor we were in our 40s-but we very well may not. And that's OK.

We talk about this in class, and I experience it firsthand in the writing workshops I lead with Scripps Gerontology Center. We encourage our writers to share stories, any stories they wish, from their past. They don't have to write down the stories they always tell, or the ones that society might deem important, like tales of obstacles overcome. We want them to write whatever story they want to write today.

Arthur used to live for the theater, but lately he's been less interested. And that's OK.

There's freedom in being the person we are in the present, and not having to answer as the person we once were. Somehow, I used to believe older adults would want to be seen as the people they were before. The world would be a better place if people could just look beyond wrinkles and walkers and wheelchairs, I thought, and recognize older adults as the teachers, entrepreneurs and dancers they once were.

But I now realize that's like airbrushing the present. Those wrinkles and walkers and wheelchairs? They become a reality. Looking away from them by focusing on the past, on the people we used to be, does a disservice to the ones we love.

I wish I'd thought of all this on the phone. Arthur doesn't have to be that professor anymore. He doesn't have to love theater the way he did, or know it inside and out. Reconnecting with a former student, perhaps, could translate to expectations, to playing a role he outgrew years ago.

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Of course, only Arthur knows how he feels, and why he was so opposed to that visit. Maybe it has nothing to do with identity or expectations. Maybe he just didn't want me to go through the hassle. But as we see family and friends this holiday season-young and old and in between-it's important to remember we're all changing and growing into the people we are today. Who knows? You just might meet a new person around the same dinner table this year.


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