…but sometimes it’s hard to remember what we love to do. We are so busy with our jobs and families and everyday life we tend to function out of habit and routine and commitments made a long time ago when we were different people. Sometimes it’s good to step back and take a good long look at where we are.
I knew I wanted to begin some voluntary work when I left teaching; teachers are born helpers and a trusted colleague advised me to find a way to carry on helping before I lost my sense of purpose (she was right). I was surprised at the certainty with which I focused on Age UK although, in retrospect, it made perfect sense. I worked in a care home for elderly and poorly people when I was at school; I remembered it was fun and we had a lot of laughs. It was easy to assume it was time’s rose-tinted spectacles – and the fact that at the time my studies and my social life were also going well – that made those memories that good, but no. They really were good times. Friends expressed surprise at the choice; presumably it was a bit of curve ball because I have been working with young people for so long. One friend expressed horror but that reflected a general fear of old people and the ageing process, I think; she’s still young so it’s all very alien to her.
So when the opportunity presented itself I took on an IT Support role at Age UK Brighton. We gather in the IT Suite every day at 10.00am. Usually there are two volunteers and it can quickly get busy. We’re a surprisingly eclectic bunch, a mix of older ladies and gentlemen all with a shared purpose, to master some aspect of technology. But what makes the older people I work with so special?
Firstly, it’s the pace at which they live. How refreshing it is to greet someone as they walk into a room and have a chat about the small things; the weather, the new ache they woke up with that morning (I am beginning to relate to that), something in the news. It takes time, that rare commodity, to chat; and none of us have enough of it nor make enough of it. But time also creates strong bonds and those bonds create community. Sometimes I feel as though I am in one of those clever film shots where the subjects are standing still while the world keeps spinning. It’s disorientating but simultaneously unbelievably calm.
Then there’s the humour; maybe because these people have lived a long life they are a little more accepting, a little more generous in their opinions. Or maybe I’m just really lucky with this bunch. They look for the funny, sunny side in every situation; even their own short-term memory loss is a target for comedy (and frustration, of course, though they express that differently!).
It’s also their enthusiasm. As children their toilets were outside and refrigerators were just about affordable in ordinary households; electricity and central heating and endless hot water were proper luxuries; TV was unimaginable technology, the domain of science fiction while phones were firmly fixed to the wall; only cinemas offered big screen entertainment and playtime was, well, playtime, in the old fashioned sense of the word. So they approach new technologies with wide-eyed wonder. I love helping them learn to download music, sell useful stuff on eBay and send messages and emails. I must admit I have learned a huge amount since I started.
It’s also their patience. Maybe they are patient because they have time. Or maybe they are patient because everything moves more slowly at an advanced age and suddenly the rush isn’t so important anymore. Or maybe they are patient because they appreciate our time and our company; it would be fair to say that many of them do come to be social. Maybe they are patient simply because they have worked out what is really important in life and they are happy to let the the other stuff slide off like water off a duck’s back. It’s lovely to spend time with patient people because impatience and frustration are constant companions for most of us – I’m instantly grumpy when my Netflix is streaming too slowly or someone does not return a text – partly because, if I didn’t want an instant reply, I would have sent a letter. Still, it’s a reminder to step back and slow down.
These people are genuinely kind. They offer to make me tea even though I invariably end up making it for them because the kitchen is a long way and downstairs and, well, I’m just quicker. They are kind with their thoughts too; they ask after my daughter and marvel at the fact that I can talk to her at anytime of day or night even though she is in Nicaragua. To be fair, even I marvel at that, having gone months without talking to my family because when I was a backpacker phone calls were prohibitively expensive.
Or maybe it’s because they are thoughtful. By which I mean they spend a lot of time with their thoughts. Before connectivity became the norm, we all spent more time being thoughtful. Without distractions they turn inwards and reflect on how the years have treated them. They process and examine and explore; I’m sure not all their memories are good ones, but they are in the past and that makes even the worst memories more benign.
I have a very strong memory from childhood that has stayed with me over the years. One summer, my mother left me with some Turkish friends for a few days. We were in Marmaris, long before Marmaris had become a British holiday destination. Come bedtime, to escape the stifling mid-summer heat, we all – parents, children, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – decamped to the roof, where we slept under the stars in the cool sea breeze. The grandparents bedded down in the middle, at the very heart of the family, and we spread like the spokes of a wheel from a hub. It was perfect.
I know older people can be rude, grumpy and inflexible, but so can everybody. I can’t help feeling sometimes that our culture, obsessed with youth and beauty and celebrity and shopping, has lost sight of its elders and the pleasure and fun they can provide. I love working with Age UK and their clients. It’s been good rediscovering what I love.