P.T. Barnum, in his New York City museum, posted signs throughout the building: “This way to the Egress.” Most people had never heard of an Egress and, expecting to see yet another exotic display, would follow the signs and find themselves outside.
People mean well, for the most part. Really they do. And if you are under 65, you most likely will not understand why I’m making all this fuss, or why I undoubtedly sound ungrateful.
But the fact is that when you approach and pass 65, you are increasingly being jostled aside, out of the mainstream of society. You become increasingly aware that you do not belong. That there is the rest of the world, and there is you. Again, much of this is done with the kindest of intentions. It begins with being offered a seat on the bus, on the insistence of others to open doors for you, or pick something off the floor for you, or carry something which you can perfectly well carry yourself.
Again, well intentioned, and quite probably both needed and appreciated by many. I am not one of those. I find having people set me apart from them in any way humiliating. If I wanted you to open the door for me, or lift something, or carry something, please believe that I would ask you to do so. What you do not realize when you do this is you are saying to me: You are old. You are not one of us. You need help. You are less than you were. This way to the Egress!
I’ve told the story before of my dear friend Louisa, who lived with her two sisters two houses down from me in the tiny town of Pence, Wisconsin. She was in her mid-80s, constantly on the go, maintained a spotless house, cooked, cleaned, went to church, went out to dinner and shopping, and led a full and active life. Her two sisters, 90 year old Amelia and 88 year old Rose, died quickly and quietly, but Louisa did not slow down, until one day she fainted and was unable to get up. Her daughter rushed to her side from Minneapolis and stayed with her, fixing her meals, washing, cleaning, attending to every detail of daily life, insisting she sit or lay down even when she did not wish to sit or lie down.
And gradually the change set in. “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” changed to “Would you get me a cup of coffee?”; “I’ve got to weed the garden” changed to “I’m not going to be able to have a garden next year.” And then, inevitably, her daughter’s family, concerned with her living alone, insisted she leave her home, her friends, everything she had known all her life, and move in with them in Minneapolis.
She was dead within six months. She had gently, kindly, but firmly been shown the Egress.
I do not want this to happen to me. I will not let this happen to me. Please, please do not, even with all the best intentions in the world, facilitate anyone’s being shown the Egress. Do not treat me, or anyone over 65 as if we were no longer individual human beings but some sort of helpless infant. If someone very obviously needs help, by all means, offer it, but don’t make an issue of it or insist on it if they decline your offer. Allow those who want to maintain their independence and their sense that they are still worthy human beings the dignity to do so.
We all will find our way to the Egress soon enough. But before you figuratively take someone’s arm and guide them toward the door, stop for just an instant and ask yourself if they really need, or more importantly, want, the help. Keep in mind that one day someone may well be doing exactly the same for you. Is it a pleasant thought?