It had been two years since my nephew, Tom, and I had our chat about historical beginnings. I missed our chats. Then one day, out of the blue, his parents dropped him off at my house for a few hours while they went shopping.
“Uncle Dave, the other day I saw a very old man hobbling along on a cane and I was wondering what it would be like to be him. I notice you have a cane now. How old are you, Uncle Dave?”
“I am 79 years old and yes, I need a cane at times to support my aging legs.”
I propped my brass eagle head walking stick by the side of my chair.
My 14 year old nephew sat on the floor at my feet.
“Well, Grasshopper, do you mind if I call you grasshopper?”
“No, I don’t mind, but why?” said Tom, quizzically.
“You’re too young to remember the Kung Fu TV series, but in the story, the Master Teacher calls his student, Grasshopper, because when he was teaching him about being in the Present Moment, he said:
“Do you hear your heartbeat?”
“No,” said the student.
“Do you hear the grasshopper at your feet?”
“No, how is it you hear these things, Old Man?”
“Young Man, how is it that you do not?”
“Now, Grasshopper, about your wondering how it feels to be old…”
“Oh yes, Uncle Dave, tell me, please,” said Tom, excitedly.
“You’re awful young to be thinking about old age.”
“I will be old some day and I want to know about it. Now, please continue, Uncle Dave.”
This kid was curious beyond his years!
“Okay, Grasshopper, here is what it feels like to be OLD:
Smear some dirt on your glasses.
Stuff cotton in your ears.
Put on heavy shoes that are too big for you.
Now, you can’t see or hear very well. You stumble around and your hands don’t work properly.”
Tom looked gobsmacked.
“You see Tom, I mean Grasshopper, as we get older our senses become less acute and our muscles weaker,” I smiled.
“When I get old I want a fancy eagle head cane like yours, Uncle Dave.”
“I’ll leave you this one when I’m finished with it.”
Tom took my cane and rubbed the brass eagle’s head.
“Uncle Dave, how do you grow old without feeling old?”
“That’s a good question, Grasshopper, I suppose you have to try to stay young in mind and spirit. But, it has been said that there is little difference between a long life and a short one. Both are but moments in time.”
“When I get older I want to study about old people and help them enjoy life.”
“A noble goal, Grasshopper. Your parents told me you are interested in pursuing a medical career.”
I knew Tom was precocious because he had skipped two grades in school, so he was studying now with 16 year olds!
“How can old people live their life to the fullest?”
“Well Grasshopper, I guess to grow old gracefully you need to:
Live and enjoy each day and don’t think too much about the past or future. Live just for today, it’s the only life we have.
Exercise and take care of your mind and body.
Keep your mind alert.
Have a hobby and join a club to interact with people.
“Uncle Dave, can you define happy and successful aging?”
“Grasshopper, I know you will do well in your pursuit of a medical career in aging because you ask the right questions.
Successful aging requires three key things:
Low risk of disease, high mental and physical functions, and active engagement with life which means interacting with others and having activities.”
“It must be sad when old people don’t feel a part of the world anymore.”
“I’m amazed, Grasshopper, your thinking is way beyond your age.”
“Well, Uncle Dave, I read that people are living longer now and I would like to help them cope.”
“Yes Grasshopper, it is sad when one is old and has outgrown the world of the young. But, then one must make one’s own music, as art, maybe music, painting or writing.”
“Maybe, some old people feel left behind.” Tom looked pensive.
“Well Grasshopper, some old people feel like they are invisible. The old tend to be shuffled off to the sidelines with the attitude of society that the old have lost value in a youth oriented world.”
“That’s a shame,” said Tom, sadly.
“Grasshopper, you are young, but I’m wondering if you ever think of mortality?”
“I do realize that everyone dies sooner or later. All living things eventually die. My dog died recently. One of my dad’s workmates died of cancer six months ago. So, yes, I do think about it sometimes.”
“Well, old people think a lot about it. As their remaining time becomes shorter and shorter, coping with what is left of life can become very hard or they might think it’s senseless to even try. That’s when depression sets in.”
“Do you get depressed, Uncle Dave?”
“No, I don’t, because I have a hobby of writing which is my passion and I’m still interacting with people and the world through attending discussion groups.”
“Uncle Dave, I suppose when you get old there are a lot of adjustments to be made.”
“That’s right, Grasshopper, the old have to adjust to all their losses: the loss of physical health, the loss of mental flexibility, loss of professional identity, financial means, friends and relatives.
If the elderly can adapt to these losses, they will still be able to say, YES to life in the last chapter.”
“Thanks Uncle Dave, for explaining so much about old age to me.”
“You’re welcome, Grasshopper,” I said, shaking Tom’s hand as he left with his parents.
Thinking back on Tom’s questions and intelligence, I wondered who was the Grasshopper, Tom or Me?