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An unexpected benefit of aging is how people tell you all kinds of stuff

Peter Jensen, Baltimore Sun on

Published in Senior Living Features

This is my Medicare eligibility year so, naturally, I feel a bit like that home appliance with AI capabilities reaching the end of its warranty. I sense that things are breaking down, but I’m hoping to get years more service before being hauled off to the dump or whatever. I would also happily use the rest of this space to list my various infirmities, but I’ve found griping doesn’t do much good. And the worst part is usually when you do complain about some new pain or creaky joint or unpleasant side effect of medication, you inevitably find out the person with whom you are sharing your maladies has it much, much worse. “Oh, your knee is stiff? I remember when I used to have a real femur before they installed the wooden one in ’82.” Just take it from me: Never gripe about non-life-threatening medical conditions unless you know the full medical history of your listener. You can thank me later. I mean if you have the means to communicate.

Still, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by one side effect of aging that I rarely hear people talk about. And it isn’t just the priority seating on public transportation or senior discounts at Kohl’s. It turns out that as we get a bit older, grayer, more wrinkled and posture-challenged, we are generally seen as less threatening by others. This provides an interesting opportunity. You can talk to complete strangers about their lives, and they will happily share often intimate details with you. My fellow boomers probably know this from experience. If only I’d had this kind of ability when I was a cub reporter trying to get government officials to spill the beans. Now, they’d not only tell me who was getting graft, but their plans for how to invest it.

Here’s how these encounters work. You are in a doctor’s waiting room or at the grocery checkout or in the airport baggage claim, and you strike up a conversation with someone nearby. “Hey, where are you from?” Or maybe you start off with a compliment or some random thoughts about the weather. In my younger days, maybe someone would mumble a reply, avert their eyes and move on. Now, they engage and tell me their life stories. I hear about school, about families, about neighbors and childhoods. We almost never talk about politics or religion. People are still gun-shy about hot-button issues. But it doesn’t take much coaxing to hear about hopes and dreams and aspirations.

And here’s the thing. It’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s educational, and for a few minutes, you get a real human connection. Recently, after the kind woman at the Verizon store restored service to my cellphone, the 26-year-old wanted a hug from my wife and me. This was our second encounter, and she had shared so much about her life that it seemed appropriate. That made my week. I can’t say my spouse and I offer much counseling, but we listen and we try to stay positive. Maybe that’s what people need most of the time, not advice but just a friendly, non-threatening ear to remind them that they matter, that they mean something.

 

Of course, it may not just be my non-threatening appearance. It could also be that, as we get a bit older, we are less in a rush so we are willing to linger. The kids are long since raised. We aren’t driving to afterschool activities or youth soccer games or even worried about getting dinner on the table. My wife and I are both curious about others. Maybe the difference today is that we are willing to take time to listen. And we pay attention. Those with whom we chat always seem to appreciate that.

Some people have more productive hobbies, I know. I could be out playing a round of golf or reading (or perhaps even writing, if I had just a wee more talent) the next great American novel. Heaven knows there are plenty of household chores that aren’t getting done. But I have to say I recommend taking some time each day to strike up a conversation with a stranger or two. You learn more about the world and maybe even yourself in the process. I think people are naturally social animals and sometimes we forget that important part of us. If so, please remember that we budding senior citizens are always available to hear you out.


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