Aging Well

Aging Well

On the importance of kindness

Posted September 13, 2019 7:58 a.m. EDT

Sean Rochleau, 50, takes his mother, Virginia, 89, for a dance on the occasion of sister Anne's wedding

It is so easy, almost reflexive, to be kind to a lost child, a new mother, or a baby who will not stop crying.

What is rarer to see, but more touching these days to me, are those individuals who take the time to be kind to a struggling elder.

This morning on the way to work, I passed a couple—I would guess in their eighties—on their way to McDonald’s. They were walking. The road was busy, the sidewalk cracked and uneven. The man was blind. The woman leading him was unsteady on her feet. Several cars stopped to let them cross the street. They were one fall away from this fragile, symbiotic relationship that enabled them to leave their home each morning for food. Was there a family member behind the curtain should that fall happen?

The answer is increasingly no.

I recently attended a lecture by the William Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at UNC Chapel Hill, Dr. James Johnson, Jr. at the Caregivers Summit in Durham. He is a demographer and two slides that stuck with me after his presentation conveyed the following:

  1. While life expectancy in the developed world today is 78, given new (“regenerative”) medical technologies and longevity trends, it is anticipated to be 101 in 2030.
  2. In 2005, the ratio of adult children to senior family members needing their assistance was three adult children to one senior; in 2050, due to increasing life expectancy and decreasing birth rates, that ratio is anticipated to be one adult child to one senior.

How are we going to meet all those needs when we, in the sandwich generation, are already stretched quite thin taking care of our children and parents in the hours we are not working? And what does this have to do with kindness?

Naomi Shihab wrote a poem, after she and her new husband were robbed of all their possessions upon arriving in a foreign country for their honeymoon, called Kindness.

If we are lucky, one day we ourselves will arrive at the foreign port of old age and come to depend on someone who will patiently repeat something we were unable to hear, help us maneuver our walker into a shop, stop their car to let us pass, or as I recently saw at a wedding, hold us close on the dance floor while we feel the music.

At the 115th anniversary of the Women’s Club of Raleigh dinner, the members stood, as they do each gathering to with a pledge penned in 1904 by Mary Stewart, which ends with

“And may we strive to touch and to know
The great, common human heart of us all
And of Lord God, let us forget not
To be kind!”