We have an old maple tree on our land, one of many actually, it’s got some dead wood on it and probably some internal disintegrating rot. If it falls, cracks, breaks, it might damage our fences, or maybe our barn, or maybe not. I’ve lived closer to big trees before, even awoke one night to a doug fir 2 feet thick landing a few feet from the cabin I lived in. I have friends who have cut trees in fear of property damage and know people who have sustained damage to their homes from tree fall, but fortunately I have not. I regularly thank the trees that live near me for gracing my life, and providing wild habitat and beauty. Magical thinking tells me they are willing to stay alive amid the air pollution, night time lights and noise, and they will try not to fall on me. Time will tell. My respect for their right to life is greater than my fear of the risks. Some day that may change.
But the phrase respect our elders more frequently brings to mind an old wrinkled man in a tribal culture or a grandmother with a twinkle in her eye recounting stories of long ago to a clutch of grandchildren. Old people we can turn to for advice wisdom and guidance. These elders are easy to respect they ask for little and give much, quietly supporting the upcoming generations.
Not all our elders look like this, many are cranky, confused, demanding and irrational. My Mother who is 95 walks into the kitchen at 5:30pm and disdainfully says ”is there any thing for me to eat?”. There is always food in our house, lots of food. We cook three hot meals a day for her, but because she can’t cook for herself she feels at the mercy of our whims. And we feel confined by her expectations “everyone puts dinner on the table at 5pm”.
My mother does not have raging dementia. She forgets I told her she needed to come to town with me this afternoon, and she forgets that she can ask for what she wants. Giving her a hot chocolate and cookie at 3:30 in the afternoon for a snack is met with “oh does this mean there will be no dinner?” She runs anxiety around meals and getting to the hairdresser on time, or that the ladder left against a tree in the yard might invite a thief to lean it against her balcony and enter her room. She worries when I leave the house and tells me I should stay home more. My Mom doesn’t hear well and says “thank you” or “I know” to anything you say to her and so she also initiates conversation (sort of) when others are deep in conversation. We are lucky my mother is not combative, she dresses and feeds herself, spends most of the day reading and listening to music in her room and she can be quite with it and pleasant at times. But there is a big emotional pull, she tracks me with the neediness of a toddler.
I’ve never had a very close relationship with my Mother, in some ways that makes it easier. I know I will provide her with a safe warm home, good food, some sense of control and when I have the energy, social opportunities. I cope with the strain on my primary relationship, the inconvenience, the annoyances because she and all elders deserve the respect to live with some dignity and with people who are there not just because they are desperate for a job. (I do know many work in elder care with love and respect.) My life circumstances allow me to do this, I work from home; my partner and our children chip in all the time. So I get to sit in the sun at the water’s edge on this frosty day as I write.
What does it take to respect our elders? Not just the wise, active one but the sick ones, the ones who’s nervous systems are disintegrating unseen under their wisps of fine grey hair. We must learn to respect our elders not for what they give back to our culture (although that can be considerable) but because each human deserves to live their life out with a sense of belonging just the way the trees belong. Right now I can do that, someday that may change.
image from Shel Silversteins the Giving Tree