One More Way to Look at Old Folks – by Ecumen Blogger Jim Klobuchar

I met Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, more than 50 years ago on her last book tour as a public personality. She was often lampooned in her ungainliness and passion for causes, but also much loved for her commitments to social justice, world peace and other goals seemingly too far.

I was then writing for the Associated Press wire service in Minneapolis, assigned to interview her. Her escort at the book signing was a Democratic Party figure in the Midwest, Joseph Robbie, who later became the owner of the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League. Joe was there to insure that all protocols were observed and that Eleanor’s encounters with the newsman were amicable and touched with suitable respect.

The lady set him at ease. “Oh, I’m going to be all right,” she laughed. “I enjoy this.”

And so she did. I asked about her books and current causes, as well as her most recent role in party politics—she would be supporting Adlai Stevenson and not John Kennedy in the forthcoming scramble for the Democratic nomination. What I remember most vividly were her volleys of laughter, her unsinkable devotion to the uplift of women in this country and around the world—at the time not a subject overwhelmingly popular. Her escort, assigned to make sure all reputations were adequately protected, including the former first lady’s, seemed nervous when she insisted on staying a little longer than the initial schedule.

Joe could have saved himself the sweat. She was a delight. I thought of that morning at the book store a few days ago when a world-traveling friend of mine sent me a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt. It said: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature. But beautiful old people are works of art.”

Please know this is not a commercial. I’m not applying for a corner wall at the Louvre to celebrate my membership in the octogenarians club. But what my friend was suggesting by quoting Eleanor Roosevelt was the fruits that are available to older folks today—assuming they have been wise in protecting their health and reaching out for the gratifications available to them in today’s world.

And what are those?

The literature on the subject is endless. Much of it counsels awareness and good sense in our treatment of body and mind. I’ve trekked and climbed with people in their 80s. That’s hardly an achievable goal for most, or, it might be argued, even a sensible one. So what is a reasonable goal, achievable by most?

On this my friend and I agree: that coming to terms with those questions is largely shaped by our interests, by our dreams and by our needs – and ultimately by what have become the important markers in our lives, so we do not have to ask: “Is this all there is?”

What most of us seek is a place where we can enjoy and even expand life in later years and – whether we are physically active or not—avoid be dogged by the mysteries and fears of what’s ahead.

This is not living for the moment. We’re mortal. We can be aware of our vulnerabilities. But age does not mean we need to abandon our curiosity to know what’s around the corner or over the hill. Nor does it mean we better be prepared for sieges of loneliness or abandonment. We’re not helpless in all of this. If we were sensible 40 years ago, or ten years ago we wouldn’t be worrying about it today. But even if we weren’t, we have sense enough to know that John Dunne was right all along four hundred years ago: No one is an island.

So let’s say we actually start over at the age 50 or 60 or 70 or more. And we now know all of these sensible paths that we ignored. We had allowed some of our friendships to disappear because of neglect or selfishness. We got fat and that curtailed fun and achievement and respectability and built resentments.

So there’s a really powerful temptation to watch television for eight hours and to sign off.

Put it in the ash can. Most of us have more choices than we realize. There is a marvelous earth here to be explored. We don’t have to be millionaires or 21st Century Magellans to do it. What we need are people in our lives who matter! It is called relationships, which do not magically give us solace or comfort when needed but have to be nourished. In one of the most primitive societies in Africa there is what we would call a medicine man. He’s not skilled medically but when he is asked to tend to someone sick with a condition the medicine man can’t identify, he will usually ask the ailing one, as his first question, the equivalent of “how are your relationships?”

My friend told of a trip to South America where she met a woman traveling alone. The woman had just turned 92. She was the last to board the boat for a cruise to Antarctica. “We all knew she was going to be the most fascinating person on board,” my friend said. “I remember sitting with her one evening at dinner for eight. A passenger, curious as we all were, asked if she had children. The 92 year old woman considered this question momentarily and then shouted, ‘Not yet.’ The table was in hysterics the rest of the dinner.”

When I talk to students who want to know what is the best way to seek success in life I tell them if I had any gift I could give them, it would be the gift of curiosity. Curiosity about the world, about the people in it, about the beauty and the mystery of it and about the choices available to us. Because from there comes discovery. And if I had any advice that would give them the greatest satisfaction in life and chance for comfort and success, it would be to nourish the relationships in their lives, and to be serious about it. Because out of that can come love, which opens our lives to what we call a fulfillment that lasts.