Looking beneath the Surface

Carol A. Hand

Recently, I recounted a story to my friend and blog partner, Cheryl Bates, about the challenges of trying to raise awareness when confronting prejudice. One of my entertaining responsibilities when I worked in the field of gerontology for State government was to try to deal with networks that discriminated against older people. I remember speaking at a conference organized to try to raise awareness about the consequences of ageism for elders who needed assistance. I knew it would be a challenge. The professionals in attendance would be angry and resistant to anything I said because they had been forced to attend. I knew if I didn’t succeed somehow, they might become even less helpful to elders.

When faced with that likelihood, as I have often been in my jobs, the only recourse was to let myself become the focal point of anger. So as I faced the audience of over 100 pissed-off service providers, I began by asking them to all introduce themselves briefly by sharing their names, job titles, and chronological age. It worked. A third of the audience refused to share their age and peevishly voiced their reasons. I had my hook and began by asking why we allow so much of our identity to be based on our chronological age. What is it about being older that brings so much fear and insecurity into our lives? Why do we feel the need to search for the fountain of youth, to appear younger than we are, to apply expensive make-up and wrinkle cream and dye our hair?

It was years later that I confronted my own realization that I was an elder. I remember the moment when I suddenly realized that the person looking back at me from the mirror had wrinkles and silvering hair. “Oh my god, I look like my mother!” It’s not that I mind looking old, it’s just that I have learned all too well how elders are treated. I am reminded of a poem I used during this conference and others to try to touch people’s hearts, to encourage them to look beyond external appearances to see the beauty of wisdom reflected in the eyes of many elders.


Photo Credit: Aadi, me, and Ava – 2010

Crabbit Old Woman

(A poem found among the possessions of an older woman who died in the geriatric ward of a hospital)

What do you see, what do you see?
Are you thinking, when you look at me-
A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice,
I do wish you’d try.
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe.
Who, unresisting or not; lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding the long day is fill. Is that what you’re thinking,
Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes,
nurse, you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still!
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of 10 with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who loved one another-
A young girl of 16 with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet,
A bride soon at 20- my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At 25 now I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure happy home;
A woman of 30, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last;
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
At 50 once more babies play around my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
For my young are all rearing young of their own.
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known;
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel-
‘Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart,
There is now a stone where I once had a heart,
But inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells,
I remember the joy, I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years all too few- gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last-
So open your eyes, nurse, open and see,
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
See Me.

I now notice how some self-important people in their 30s and 40s speak more loudly when they address me, and use simpler language, if they acknowledge my presence at all. Yet, like the crabbit old woman, my worth as a human being isn’t based on the recognition of others. My life is still blessed by family and friends, compatriots and students who look more deeply at others to find the beauty and wisdom within themselves and others.

(And if you have the courage to ask me my chronological age, I promise to reply without anger or defensiveness – it’s just a number that that only has the meaning we have been socialized to give it.)




28 thoughts on “Looking beneath the Surface

  1. Ah, yes. I had a funny experience recently. I was working with a group of much younger people and one of the young women referred to me as an elder. I took it as a compliment. A couple of weeks later, when she learned my actual age–63–she was embarrassed and apologetic. She said she’d thought I was 40 and said “elder” as a joke and she really really didn’t mean to hurt my feelings! Sad, no?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can still remember when I was young and looked up to people older than me, as role models. It began when I was in elementary school. I remember when I was in my twenties and met a woman in her 40’s who I thought looked very young. Then in my 40’s met a woman in her 60’s who looked good and was healthy, running her own business. (Although, a terrible personality 🙂 ) And now, in my sixties, I still feel young and am grateful of health and just don’t want to gain too much weight. My favorite part of nursing has always been working with the older people. I basically hold to that wise old adage, “You’re only as old as you feel.” What I learned from a much older woman, years ago, is that our bodies may age, but memories and feelings can last and not change.

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    1. I have to say you still look very young, Skywalker 🙂 , and I’m not surprised to hear you enjoyed working with elders.

      (I had to laugh when I read your comment about the woman in her 60s who “looked good” but had “a terrible personality” — the adage I learned is that people don’t change as they age — they just become more of what they always were…)


  3. Please pass the Benjamin Button pills. Reminded of a Buddhist phrase about “an incarnation is like the dew on a blade of grass”, related to the poem’s words, “all too few – gone too fast”. An excellent book and/or documentary project would be one which included elders’ interviews of an amount say, 50-100-200, on the same lines as Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie”.

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    1. As I watch what my 15-year-old grandson is going through, I know I much prefer being old 🙂 As I reflect on your comments, I am reminded of how I survived my own teenage years — it was because I spent most of my free time with elders in the nursing home my mother owned and operated then. I listened to their stories, and one artist taught me how to paint.

      I love the Buddhist quote, Jerry, and your idea for a book or documentary! (and I enjoyed reading Tuesdays with Morrie, a lovely story about kindness and connection.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In the Asian culture, which I am completely disconnected from, the veneration of elders is the rule not the exception. I just turned 41 and cringe at the world we are leaving for our children. My hope is that we can leave it just a little better than we found it but it’s going to take struggle and resistance. My fear is that our children will grow up feeling invisible and marginalized if they refuse to take their place in the capitalist grind.

    Great picture and words to consider, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jeff. I always appreciate you kind words and thoughtful comments.

      Ojbiwe culture in the past was similar to your description of Asian cultures. One of the tenets of the Midewewin Society, or Grand Medicine Lodge, is “Honour the aged; in honouring them, you honour life and wisdom” (Basil Johnston, 1976, Ojibway Heritage, p. 93). It’s something my mother taught me through her example as a gifted nurse.

      I share your concerns about the world we are leaving for the next generations. I have to say the video I watched last night (Michael Rupert’s “Collapse”) painted a very bleak future. Yet this week my students gave me hope when they spoke about the need to think critically and become involved as advocates. And the work you do as a teacher, advocate, and network-builder is inspiring as well.


  5. Wade Davis, one of my favorite thinkers and adventurers, has lived among the peoples of the Amazon and Haiti. He praises indigenous spirituality and closeness to nature. A favorite quote: We must stop thinking of indigenous peoples as ‘failed attempts to be us.” (Us = Europeans). Only through a deep appreciation for this world view will we find a way for our species to make it through this century. Thank you, Carola, for continuing the struggle with patience and grace.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Bob, and for mentioning Wade Davis. I love his work and his respect for the wisdom of indigenous peoples around the world. I also appreciate your continuing attention to discrimination and injustice.


  6. oh my!!! This is one of my favorite posts I have read in a LONG time…this is SOOOOO true + you put everything I have been feeling all in one post over the past few years. I decided to let my natural hair go white even though I am not that old. It was vainity that was keeping me dying my hair. For health reasons, I gave up hair dye, but it dawned on me why are we ALL covering up our wisdom!!!In other cultures the elderly are seen as “wise” and they are the ones toseek out for the answers about life, but today we look to the media or heaven forbid-Hollywood-INSANE!!!
    I really don’t subscribe to what the world views as wise:-) We all ( us wise ones)need to stand together and shout so we are heard, but what good would that do since they won’t listen until they cross over the magic bridge of 40 yrs old..it begins there and when you get into the valley of 50’s which is where I am it really is a grand place because you just don’t give a damn what the world thinks anymore and wonder why ALL this wisdom is wasted on the old-lol…I have always said, I would return to being young again with “all my color” if I could take my wisdom with me I have attained through my life journey, if I can’t well NO WAY IN HELL would I go back!!!!-lol….


    1. Such important insights, Robbie! Thank you for your comments. I agree that we do need to support one another to share deeper truths about what really matters. (I wouldn’t return to being young again, either!)


  7. Hi Carol, a lovely post. I wonder what made us fear growing old? Mortality, vulnerability, a culture which devalues aging and seeks to server the bonds between generations of people? Mary Gergen has done some lovely work on age, but I think my favourite story was Leo Buscaglia’s tale of Joel, visiting people in a home for the elderly and finding out the value of care, just like you.


    1. Nicci, it is so good to hear from you! And as always you have shared thoughtful insights and raised important questions.

      Attitudes toward aging and old age vary a great deal depending on culture and historical context. Capitalist societies based on competition, individualism, the illusion of self-reliance, and the protestant work ethic probably have the most negative views of aging and old age. People who are not “productive” and not youthfully attractive are devalued.

      I’m grateful that I had opportunities to learn that kindness and wisdom are far more important than superficial beauty and busyness.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A society that doesn’t prize the wealth of knowledge that comes with its elders is a society that is doomed. The elderly have so much to offer us. Our next door neighbour Glad is 92 this year. She is vital and vibrant and still mows her own lawn (she is on 5 acres!) and she likes us because we don’t treat her like she is “old”. I truly think that aside from infirmity that takes you out of the loop, aging is an exciting premise. I am only just starting to realise the truth of things that I have been taught for years. The other day I looked at something that turned my perception head over tail. I have known this for years but only now did I “get it”. I love being 50. I love the confidence and the happiness and the centred place that I have found myself in. Maybe it’s because I have never traded on my (lack of ) looks to perambulate myself around the world that I live in so a few grey hairs and the odd wrinkle are just that and nothing more and maybe it’s because I have always lived on the fringes and only darted into mainstream whenever I absolutely, positively HAD to but life is so very sweet now. It tastes better than chocolate and I can think more clearly now that my children are adults and have left home. I get the time to go inside my head clarifying just who “I” am each day and clearing out all of that debris that I don’t need any more. My daily mental garage sales ;). I can only hope that like Glad next door, I will be still lucidly mowing my lawns at 90 🙂


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and engaging comments. You are such a gifted storyteller, Narf! I love your description of Glad and your insights about aging. I agree that silver hair and wrinkles are a small price to pay for “getting it,” and being able to reflect and enjoy living.


  9. Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
    I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
    For my young are all rearing young of their own.
    And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known;

    I needed to tell you I memorized this stanza decades ago from a book I read entitled Widow and recited by memory to my mother seven years ago when my father died.
    Coincidence Carol?


    1. This is a beautiful poem, Cindy, and so like Crabbit Old Woman. Memories of years and loves past remain part of us and help during the “dark days” of loss.

      Sharing this with your mother was so kind and loving — these are among the gifts I see reflected in your photos, posts, and comments to other bloggers. I am grateful and honored to be part of your community.


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