I often meet elderly people as I walk my dog, Oscar, in the morning. There was one truly lovely gentleman I met recently. He was getting out of his car and his son was helping him to the house.
Oscar wanted to say hello, as he does to almost everyone. I often have to hold him back because being a Labrador he does like to jump up on people. But the man was keen for Oscar to approach. Oscar loved him. His tail was wagging so fast!
We chatted about dogs and how much love they bring into a household. I told him how Oscar has changed my life and he smiled. He told me that he always had dogs – Labradors – but not nowadays. As we bid farewell, he took my hand in his and held it so sincerely as he wished me a happy life.
I felt deeply moved by his sincerity. I felt emotional walking away. I could have happily chatted for hours. Some people have that kind of effect on you.
In society, we tend to view elderly people as frail and always needing care. It made me wonder how we often forget that elderly people have had a lifetime of experiences that they can share with us, and a lifetime’s worth of wisdom that they can impart to us that can make our lives happier and more fulfilling.
There was one day, more than a decade ago, when I was chatting with an elderly gentleman named Jack. He was a regular in the bar that I tended in the west end of Glasgow, in Scotland. I worked there part-time while a few friends and I were setting up a new charity.
He would always come into the bar around 11am. He was in his late seventies and had fought in World War II. I had served him several times but never shared a conversation. I don’t remember how we got onto the subject but he told me a story that had changed his life decades earlier.
It was during the war and he had been separated from his company and found himself in a deserted town of bombed buildings. He hadn’t been there long when a company of German soldiers arrived. He hid inside one of the buildings because he knew he’d be killed if they found him. He was terrified, he told me, especially because the soldiers began to search the buildings. He said he was even scared to breathe because he could hear them so close.
He was shaking. He had never been so scared in his life. As he heard a soldier approach and enter the room where he was hiding – Jack was standing behind the door – he clutched his gun, but he couldn’t think straight.
Jack was too terrified to move or even speak, let alone raise his gun. If he had done so anyway, to defend himself, he would have certainly been killed by the other soldiers.
“He approached me with his gun raised,” Jack told me. “He looked me in the eyes. He could see my fear. I couldn’t handle the terror any more… My body gave way. I wet myself, standing right there in front of him.”
“Then the most unexpected thing happened,” Jack said.
“He stared at me for a moment, squinted his eyes a little, then he gave me a compassionate smile and a gentle nod, turned his back, and walked away, signalling to the other soldiers that the building was clear.”
“I’ve never forgotten that,” Jack told me. “It happened back in 1944 but it’s the thing I most remember about the war.”
Jack told me that it made him a better person and he spent the rest of his life always taking opportunities life presented to him to help others. He was impressed that my friends and I were setting up a charity and wished me well. He reminded me that it’s the little things that count.
Yes, I think elderly people have a lot of wisdom; a lifetime’s worth. It’s our loss if we don’t allow them to share it with us.
Notes: The story of Jack in the war is reproduced from my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘, by David R Hamilton PhD