She was just a few feet away from me, staring at the array of frozen foods in front of her. She caught my glance because I thought to myself, ‘how difficult a decision are you really trying to make – mixed vegetables or broccoli’. This wasn’t a life altering choice that she had to make. I continued pushing my cart down the aisle and then it hit me – she couldn’t reach what she needed, because she was in a wheelchair – the ones that have the grocery cart attached to it. I felt so much shame in my previous sarcastic thought. I walked up to her and instead of asking her if she needed help, I pretended that I needed frozen vegetables and asked if I could get her anything while I had the door open. The expression on her face didn’t match my question – it was as if I asked her if she would like $1000.
She was an elderly woman, maybe in her seventies, but what stood out about her was her soft gray eyes – she had a warmth about her. She asked me what kind of vegetables I was getting and I told her they were potatoes with green beans and red peppers. She crinkled up her face like a small child and told me that she didn’t care much for red peppers. Then she went on to describe in detail her distaste for cauliflower and jalepenos. I chuckled and hoped she never had to experience those two together, as that would most certainly be an unfortunate combination. I helped her with the items she couldn’t reach and told her that I would keep an eye out for her while I was shopping and would be more than happy to help in any way I could. Then she put her hand on my arm. Without words, I knew what she wanted, she wanted to talk. She needed someone to listen. She told me her name was Debbie and she only went grocery shopping twice a month, always dreading it because there was so much she needed help with. Debbie also told me that she had crippling arthritis and her husband has cancer – they both are on disability. Her husband has lost most of his teeth, as they lost their dental insurance a few year ago. She went on to tell me how her husband’s cancer treatments damaged his teeth. He is on a very special diet and the protein drinks and foods that he can eat are expensive. Debbie said she tries to eat foods that are inexpensive and filling so there will be enough money to buy what he can eat. We moved our carts ahead a little and as Debbie looked at the various frozen foods, she said that she didn’t understand why food costs so much money. My heart sunk when she told me that during the last three or four days of every month, her and her husband just drink water – there isn’t any money again until the first of the month.
Debbie wasn’t looking for pity, she apologized twice for her appearance, which was unnecessary, but I could tell that many years ago, she was probably quite a looker. Time and life had taken its toll on her. Something that will happen to all of us eventually. I told Debbie a little about my situation, about my little boy and his terminal illness and how he too, is in a wheelchair. But this was one of those instances where I needed to do more listening than talking. We talked for almost thirty minutes and then I gave her a hug and walked away. A few minutes later our paths crossed again – she had just turned down an aisle when a boy was coming around the corner and accidentally knocked some items out of her basket. I watched, hoping he or his mom would pick up what had fallen, but that didn’t happen. I was enraged. I walked up to Debbie and put all the items back in her cart and loudly commented on how rude some people can be. I have no filter and not one shy bone exists in my body. When it comes to the disabled, whether they be children, middle age or the elderly – I have a zero tolerance policy for mistreatment or neglect.
As I was driving home tonight, my thoughts were racing. Why, in the year 2013, in what is supposed to be the greatest country in the world, do our elderly get treated the way they do? How could a couple in their seventies, who both worked for over thirty years, now be living on just water the last few days of each month? I recently learned that in France, children are now legally responsible for taking care of their aging parents if they need assistance. If something were to happen to their parents, the children are held accountable. That was made law in the early 2000’s after more than 15,000 elderly people died in France during a heat wave. Many bodies weren’t discovered until weeks later by their children. In Japan, elderly family members are treated with immense dignity and respect and will live with his/her family when the time comes. Children are taught from an early age to respect their grandparents. In the villages in Fiji, when people become old, family steps in and takes care of them until they pass away. In the United States, the trend seems to be to put our elderly family members in a nursing home – which I consider almost cruel. I realized there are situations when perhaps an elderly family member is too sick to be cared for at home by their family. But these are our parents, they most likely sacrificed ten times over so we could have a wonderful life. As they age, become less independent, it’s our job, no, our place, as their children, to help them in any way we can. Personally, I can’t imagine doing anything less. You take care of your family, that’s it, that’s all there is to it. La Famiglia è per Sempre ~ Family Forever.
I read somewhere once that how far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.
“…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. ” ~Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey