Friday, October 29, 2010

Even you are getting older

(Artikeln finns även på svenska. Se nedanför.)

My knee was bothering me so I decided not to join the rest of the family in climbing one of the medieval towers in San Gimignano, Italy. Although it was only June, the afternoon sun was warm so I decided to find a shady place to sit. Across the courtyard I saw one of those “rooms” you often see on public squares in Italy – a three-walled space that faces the courtyard at street level under the first floor of some medieval building. I went in, propped myself against the stone bench that ran along the walls of the room, and waited.

A few minutes later, a couple white-haired seniors carrying aluminum lawn chairs came in and sat down. Soon others joined them; and before long, I was part of a gaggle of elderly Italians whiling away a summer afternoon. At least one had brought a thermos of coffee. Clearly this was a daily ritual, but no one seemed perturbed by a tourist among them. Perhaps that’s par for the course when you live in San Gimignano!

I've seen a similar phenomenon in southern France. We were poking around a city park one afternoon when a group of elderly women and men gathered to play boules. I had heard that people in France do this, but was pleasantly surprised to see that it is true.

Contrast this with a day at an indoor pool in Sweden. I was showering in the locker room when a woman who must have been at least 80-years-old or even 85 stepped into the shower and removed her bathing suit. Loose skin hung in swags down both sides of her back and from her bottom. She wasn’t fat; just old. Two nubile teens shot glances her way and snickered. But I had nothing but admiration for the woman. I only hoped I would be equally spry when I was 80-plus and able to swim in a large public pool crowded with screaming kids, watchful parents, and self-absorbed teens.

In Sweden and my U.S. home state of Minnesota, you rarely see old people in public. Even on a bright summer day in Stockholm or Minneapolis, you rarely see groups of old people just hanging out in a park or other public place. Where do our old people hide, or perhaps more accurately, where do we hide them? Why don’t we see more old people out and about in Sweden and in Minnesota?

In the late 1960s, my family lived down the street from an Italian-American family whose maternal grandparents lived with the family. The grandparents had a small apartment on the second floor of the house and sometimes I would see them puttering in the yard or sitting in the first floor living room. I was amazed to see grandparents living in the same house as the family. It was the first and only time I had seen that while growing up.

I haven’t thought a lot about what kind of life I want in my dotage, but like most people, I don’t want to “be a burden” to my children. But what constitutes a burden, when do you become one, and who decides? Isn’t it time for meaningful social policies that support families in all ways, sizes, shapes, and forms including intergenerational living for those who want it? (See also Dream On…)

When I lived in Minneapolis, I used to pass a building – it may have been a nursing or retirement home – every day on my way to and from work. Inscribed across the front of the building was this pronouncement and daily reminder: Even you are getting older.

Note: This article has been published in Swedish in the Västmanland newspaper VLT:
Var gömmer vi alla vara äldre?


  1. Michelle, I agree that we need to make more room for old people in our public spaces. Our society--Swedish and US--is far too segregated in regards to age. There are few arenas (outside family) in which different generations meet.
    However, I think there is a difference between Stockholm and Västerås in regards to 'visibility' of old people. I see them every day here, on the public buses and subways, and--at least in the summer--in the parks.
    Thanks for a thoughtful blog. Marti

  2. I'll have to pay more attention and see if I agree! Thanks for your comments!


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