On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
The woman on the left was listened to by Alejandro earlier. On the right is a Sidewalk Talk volunteer. They bonded for a good hour around their shared love of creating connection. The postcard being held is a sacred space of connection that this talker has created and was on her way to share with Marc Benioff. These senior women combat loneliness by offering up their skill and wisdom.
For those outside the US, AARP is all about empowering people to live however they want as they age. They have 38 million members and are the most widely distributed magazine in the United States. They are a pretty cool organization that I have admired for a long time. AARP was one of the sponsors for the National Poll on Healthy Aging in the United States where 1 in 3 seniors report feeling lonely. You can read more in this TIME Magazine piece that summarizes the poll.
How do we want to be related to as we age?
I was tickled when AARP called me to arrange a photographer to come out and do a social media story on Sidewalk Talk (I also thought “wow this must mean I am fully on my way to seniorhood”). I could not be prouder. My sons like to tease me about my washboard of wrinkles on my forehead and they call me Yoda some days. I explain there are too many good years of laughter and surprise in these lines of mine to feel picked on (and we have some nice conversations about body shaming). AARP is a hero organization because they are helping us keep a celebration and empowerment view of aging.
When I was two, I met my great grandfather and it was love at first sight. Papa Bob was kind, steady, and he smelled so good. I still can feel his polyester shirt against my skin and smell his Old Spice when I close my eyes. He let me put barrettes in his hair and was endlessly patient with my questions “why this” and “how come” that. More recently, in my psychotherapy practice, I have gotten to sit with many seniors and dig deep into their third act and how they are facing mortality. They are wise with insights and still full of possibilities. This year I had my oldest patient, aged 93.
One in three seniors is lonely but solving their loneliness may look different than you think.
What we often get wrong is senior loneliness is very context-dependent. Some seniors want to serve, offer their skills, or be respected for what they have to contribute, not just “taken care of”. One of the assignments I had in high school was to find senior citizens in my neighborhood and interview them about their lives. The imprint of my conversation with Howard and Evelyn is with me to this day. I heard how they grew up during the depression and could feel the fear and resilience with deep admiration. I felt my heart with them when they shared what it was like during the war and their sense of duty and pride. I related to their joy, heartache, love, and loss and how they made it through. The longer I listened their personhood, not their age, took center stage. And from that day forward I have approached older adults with a much different energy of respect and reverence as wise elders.
An 85 Year Old Going on a Date:
Two years ago, I met Al. He sat across from me as I was listening on the sidewalk in Southern California. He had a cane and a sailors hat on and his pressed button down and blue dinner jacket had him looking very stylish. He was in a really good mood and said “I have a date tonight”. He was 85. Al was sparkling about a woman he met and they were meeting for their second “in person” date that night. He described her beauty and their love of reading and music. He then went on a long reverie with me of his love of philosophy and transpersonal psychology books. His age faded far into the background as he schooled me on the great philosophers.
This man was a walking JOY popsicle stick. He didn’t deny his age but he also felt liberated by age. When you are nearing death, joy becomes a big priority. This was one of those moments, and I have had many, where getting to hear someone’s story felt far more meaningful for me than the talker. Al, I hope your date with Sharon went great. (Names disguised for privacy).
I have long desired to have Senior Led Sidewalk Talk chapters.
Often, volunteers want to go be with seniors but one of our ethics at Sidewalk Talk is that compassion happens between equals. If we go to listen to a population that differs from us we have to keep our desire to “save” or “help” in check as that can interrupt the purity of the connection.
Here is a great video clip of Reverend Barbara Meyers, one of our most active volunteers and chapter leaders. She is over 70 and listens more frequently than anyone else, myself included. And she is an introvert. (read full article here).
Seniors are our wise teachers. May they get their loneliness itch scratched by being apart of something that honors their wisdom. A deep and abiding reverence in our listening, guided by the question, “I want to know who you are”, allows us to find out the personal context that will empower our elders to live their third act in alignment with their values, not ours.