Why everyone needs an Old friend

Show of hands: who has an old friend?

 

I don’t just mean a friend from middle-school whom you’re still in touch with. I mean an old friend – a friend who’s thirty, forty, fifty years older than you. And who’s not a blood relative.

 

Not many. And that’s a shame. Because the old have something incredibly rare, and perishable, and irreplaceable to offer: actual, firsthand knowledge of the world.

 

There’s a gripping memoir I read recently by a gentleman named Harry Bernstein. It’s his first book. He published it at age 96.

 

But here’s what’s kind of amazing. When the book became a hit, a New York Times reporter asked Bernstein how it came about. This is what he replied:

 

“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.”

And then he leaned forward and said:

“God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”

 

Now that’s a radical idea. That old people could still have potential. That they’re still, in some sense, ripening. Life experience works like compound interest, delivering a rich back-end payoff in wisdom and insight. That ought to make really old people the most sought-after dinner companions in the world.

 

But it doesn’t. Maybe in Japan in does, but not here.

 

Here’s what most people under 25 think about most people over 75: nothing. They have no idea what old people have to offer because they don’t know any old people. Outside grandparents and uncles and aunts – who you have to visit at Christmastime – theirs is a seniors-free world. Old folks aren’t much walking the streets; they aren’t represented in the mass media. They’re ghosts. We warehouse them, out of sight, out of mind.

 

That’s a really worrisome development on a lot of levels. Not just because all that firsthand knowledge is dying on the vine.

 

What old people do for us, one of the many things, is they remind us of where we’re headed. Without old people in our lives, there can so easily be a disconnect between our present selves and our future selves. And that affects the way we live, the choices we make. It creates the conditions for ruinously short-term thinking.

 

Some ingenious studies have revealed how this works. Turns out that if we’re shown photos of ourselves digitally aged, it’s a jolting wake-up call. We change our behavior. We save more for retirement, we eat a healthier diet, we behave less recklessly. The same thing happens if we’re asked to sit down and write a letter to our “future self.” Our mortality snaps into focus. It is a Jacob Marley moment. We go, holy crap, that’s going to be me.

 

If you visit the Aging Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you put on the leg braces, and the big cumbersome gloves, and the vision-impairing goggles that simulate glaucoma, you get a hint of what frailty feels like. And it changes you. Now the wall between you and the old guy in line at the grocery store crumbles. You see him differently. That is, you see him. His trembling hand putting a can of beans down on the counter. He looks old to you, but the picture he has of himself, from the inside, is quite different. He’s probably astonished to look in the mirror and see that wrinkled face looking back. He’s thinking: how did this happen? Old age came for him like a thief in the night, and it’s coming for us, too.

 

Now, I was lucky enough to have a staggeringly great old friend. When we met, Olga Kotelko was enjoying this fantastic, unlikely career as a master’s track-and-field star. She was like Harry Bernstein; she was cashing in the potentials lurking inside of her because something had kept her alive into her Nineties. I didn’t have to write a letter to my future self, because I had Olga. She was what the high road looks like.

 

But one of the differences between us, I noticed, is that she burned hotter. By which I mean, she knew she had less time. And so she lived differently. She was gorging on life. She knew what things are important and what aren’t, and so she didn’t squander even a minute on stuff that’s merely urgent, or worse, trivial. She used the whole day, and dropped off to sleep every night with gratitude. Olga suffered way more sadness and hardship than I have, which sharpened her appreciation for what was right in front of her. She was alive to a degree that put me to shame.

 

I started out writing a science book about her –what physiologists are learning from her crazy, age-defying ways. It ended up being about what I have learned from her.

 

May you all have an Olga in your life.

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