Seniors need more than just respect

Last Saturday, my friend, Metta, forwarded an e-mail that one of her friends had forwarded to her. The e-mail began with “I guarantee you will remember this tale of the Wooden Bowl tomorrow, a week from now, a month from now, a year from now.” A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled and he had bad eyesight. So as a result, he spilled his milk, spilled his food, and frequently broke dishes. When the son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess, they set a small table in the corner. There, the frail grandfather ate alone and his food was served in a wooden bowl. Later, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the boy what he was making. The four-year-old replied, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when I grow up.” This insightful story makes me think of the time my mother lived with us for a few years, after her beloved Nick died far too young. My daughter was four years old at the time. It was a very pleasant experience. My mother often baby-sat and helped with the housework. During that time, we shared many special conversations and lots of fun shopping trips. I missed her badly when she moved out. Yet, my mother, who had a strong personality, could be irritating sometimes. So I worked hard to keep my cool, thinking of my young children and that one day the tables would be turned. The wooden bowl story is, indeed, a wise one. Attached to this e-mail version of the tale was another wise statement. “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles four things: a rainy day, the elderly, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.” Rainy days, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights aren’t terribly important. But the way you treat the elderly is critical. Most of us were taught to respect our elders. So we’re polite to persons who are older than us and we venerate them. But that's not good enough! No one wants to be placed on a pedestal. After all, a pedestal is a very lonely place. Rather, most older people just want to be treated like normal people. What they really need is friendship—to sit at the table with their family. They want to be needed and listened to. When my mother died at 82, what I missed most was her advice. Faced with a thorny problem, I often would sit and meditate on the question: What would Mom say? She had so much wisdom. A few days before my mother died of heart failure, she said, “Wouldn’t it be something if I would have to leave you. How could you possibly get all your work done without me?” And she was right, I needed her badly. So, don’t disregard the advice to respect your elders. But at the same time, remember to offer them friendship and conversation, and a chance to be needed. Marie Snider is an award-winning health care writer and syndicated columnist. Write her at or visit

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