Lisa Fraser explains how volunteering to buy groceries for an isolated elderly neighbour has changed the way she relates to older people.
I have never thought so much about my grandparents as during this lockdown. It is not that I am concerned about their health, because they have already passed away. Rather, the crisis has given me an urge to reconnect with my roots. Deep down, I hear a call, telling me that there is more than this daily routine: there is a bigger picture, which starts long before our time, and I want to learn from it.
Seeing a new world emerge
The last couple of months have been humbling: we have seen the world as we knew it re-configure at a dramatic pace. The things we loved and took for granted – hugging, going out – are no longer allowed; and it is likely that life will not go back to the way it used to be.
We will be happy again, but differently.
When my grandfather passed away, someone offered me a book retracing the history of the village where he lived. Imagine life in a small French Riviera village in the first half of the 20th century: children going to the beach and picking fruits in the orchards after school; parents chatting with the town’s shop-keeper; elderly people drinking aniseed-flavoured spirits in the shade.
I’m not idealising the past – it was hard, and life expectancy was shorter than it is now. However, there was a sense of community and personal care that we have lost. My grandfather saw the world he knew eroding gradually, without being able to influence it. He reached a point where he could no longer connect with society because he was left out by the arrival of the internet and smartphones. When I looked at this photo book, I understood why he passed away: he was no longer of this world.
Although humans have been living on this planet for millennia, we have lived in very different worlds. As the outbreak of Covid-19 is imposing new norms, are we leaving one world to enter a new one? I’m young enough to be able to embrace it, but I wonder: will people be left out? Is there a way we can prevent isolation? What role can I play to make the elderly feel that this world still has a place for them?
Connecting at a deeper level
As a child, I was genuinely attentive to the ‘war stories’ told by my family and teachers. I listened to them patiently and I was interested. Yet, these stories have taken on a different dimension with the Covid-19 pandemic.
I was queuing outside the local supermarket recently. I was upset because I was wasting my time without even knowing what items would be available in store. Suddenly, something hit me: my grandparents went through this – and worse. They knew rationing, shortages, and chronic lack of choice. This realisation gave me the grace to accept my situation with patience out of respect for the older generations. If they managed it, then I could stay positive and be resilient too.
This supermarket experience helped me distinguish between knowledge ‘with the brain’ and knowledge ‘with the heart’. I know dinosaurs existed because trustworthy people have taught me about them. But there is a deeper level of knowledge: I’m getting to know my grandparents ‘with my heart’ because Covid-19 has given me a glimpse of what they went through. Though my grandparents are gone, I feel closer to them than ever. Covid-19 has given me greater empathy.
These emerging feelings have prompted me to pay more active attention to the elderly around me.
When the lockdown came into force, we set up an informal scheme in our neighbourhood to support people who were isolated. I volunteered to do the grocery for an elderly woman living in a street nearby. I’d been walking this street several times a day over the last year. The houses were so big that it broke my heart: it reminded me of how unequal our society was, and how many of us could not afford our own place.
Yet, my heart broke a second time when I entered the lady’s house: I was struck by the silence and the loneliness, which I could almost feel physically. It made me think: though I didn’t have a fixed abode, I do have good legs and the energy of my youth, allowing me to go out and make friends. ‘My Old Lady’ had her big house, but she was locked down on her own. The envy I once felt disappeared.
With Covid-19, I’ve realised that a world where we don’t share our strengths and support each other’s weaknesses is a bitter world. We need to connect the strengths of each generation if we want to make life more bearable. We need each other.
My offer to buy groceries for this lady seemed a very straightforward gesture: practical, fast and simple.
But actually meeting ‘My Old Lady’ made me think further about our real needs as human beings. I asked myself: what did she need that I could give her; and what did I need that she had? I thirsted for greater understanding of our recent past, and she was the one with answers. Soon, the weekly grocery trip became for both of us more than volunteering: we took it as an opportunity to create a relationship, and to build a bridge between our generations.
Realising this has changed the way I engage with other older people. Now, when I meet the neighbours, I make the effort to get to know them personally. I use the calendar as an excuse. On VE Day, I asked
“do you remember that time?”
on the Queen’s birthday, I asked
“do you remember her coronation?”
I don’t think I’m being nosey: I inquire because I love these people, and because I love the truth. It’s not mere curiosity leading to gossip; rather, it’s a curiosity that leads to growth. I ask open, broad questions, and I’m ready to change the topic if I notice it triggers bad memories. So far, I’ve only had positive reactions: people seem delighted that someone pays attention, and it gives them an opportunity to share their life lessons. Try it: you’ll be surprised.
These discussions with older people have helped me accept better the new world that is taking shape. Initially, when the cities closed down, I was concerned about ‘losing out’. Now, I wonder whether in the midst of the things we’ve lost, we are also winning something: a new (or should I say, old?) form of wisdom.
One of my older neighbours, in her 90s, talked about her childhood. She told me they bought their products fresh from the farmers, whom they knew. They had reusable bags: single-use plastic did not exist; they lived according to the seasons. It sounds similar to what we are trying to recover nowadays to save our planet. This lady was puzzled when I talked about the ‘woke movement’ and ‘Millennials’. She said:
“I don’t know them. I just know that it’s how we lived when I was a child, and it worked.”
There is wisdom here for us to re-discover, which could make our life better. I repeat – those times were not perfect, and we need to separate the wheat from the chaff. But we can only do it when we re-connect the generations.
Covid-19 is painful for our communities, but I would like to believe that we can learn from this challenge. It could teach us to see that, collectively and individually, we could be more caring towards older people. Now that I understand this, I want to embrace this unique occasion to love, learn and grow. But there is one thing to bear in mind: Covid-19 hits the elderly the hardest, and time for them is the shortest; whatever we want to do, we should start it this very day.
For a Christian approach to this issue, readers might like to see Pope Francis’ interview ‘A Time of Great Uncertainty’. It expresses very well what many of us were starting to discern about how this crisis offers the chance to change. The Pope also considers the question of how generations can interact with each other.
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