As I think I may have remarked somewhere, the principal problem with the sort of Continuing Care Retirement Community [CCRC] where I now live is that it is full of old people, which reminds me more often than I would like that I am going to die. The principal benefit is that it is full with old people, many them older than I, some much older than I, thus giving me reason to believe that I will not die just yet.
Slowly, I have been getting to know the people who live here [here being Carolina Meadows], mostly those in the building in which I live, but bit by bit those in other buildings or in what are called “villas,” small one story free-standing homes with garages and such. For well-known demographic reasons, more of my fellow residents are old women than are old men, and some of the women are well into their nineties, or even beyond. Almost all of us have suffered the visible insults of old age, and there are as many walkers in use here as there are bicycles on a college campus. Some of us are bent almost double with arthritis and other physical problems, others have a marked case of “widow’s hump,” and a fair number of folks exhibit some sort of cognitive loss – forgetfulness, short term memory loss, and so forth. People here are touchingly understanding of and accommodating of the frailties of others, routinely and without comment.
All of this made me feel, rather defensively, when I first moved in, that I did not belong, that I had no business being here, that although I am a naturally polite person [believe it or not], I really had nothing in common with the other residents.
But little by little, around the jigsaw puzzle table or the dining rooms or in the hallways, I actually began to talk with folks, and I have discovered to my great surprise and considerable pleasure that contrary to appearances and the usual “tells” by which we appraise people, many of my fellow residents are genuinely interesting people. Most of them have college degrees [remember that only about 5% of people of my generation completed college], many have traveled to places I have never seen, and all have, during their long lives, done genuinely interesting things. [I leave entirely to one side the report that the man who occupied our apartment before we moved in was a Nobel Prize winner.]
Several months ago, shortly after moving in, I got into a conversation with a tiny woman, bent over double by extreme arthritis, who paused to try to get a piece in the jigsaw puzzle we were then doing. She is so crippled that she has to turn her head to one side to look up when she talks to someone. Every instinct in me cried out that this was someone I should help across the street, but not someone I would want to talk with. But I actually have an acute ear for language, and a turn of phrase she used struck me as lovely and genuinely intelligent. She turns out to be a fascinating person who is, appearances aside, one of the sprightliest people I have ever met.
Again and again, I have had experiences like this here, challenging and rebutting my lifelong habit of judging people by their academic stigmata. It has been an eye-opener living in a CCRC.