When I started out on my camping trip a month ago, I had no idea what to expect. I knew only that this trip would be different from all my trips in the past because of my decision to find and interview old people living alone (OPLA). I thought the difference would stem mainly from my having a job to do rather than just floating along day by day. I had no inkling how fascinating every aspect of this project would become.
My first stop was the town campground in Telluride, Colorado. As in all past summers, I always choose the most spectacular places in the West and the Southwest to set up camp. In Telluride I found not a single OPLA, but it was there I discovered that the search itself is rewarding and full of surprises. I feel free to approach anybody, telling them what I’m doing, and asking if they know anyone over 90 who lives alone. I’m still bowled over by the response I get. Almost everyone is immediately pulled in by the unusual question, they want to know more. And then they call over to a nearby friend and tell them about it. They pull out their phones and call people who might be able to help.They start reminiscing about every old person they’ve known in the past who lived alone but is no longer alive. They start talking amongst themselves about what an interesting project it is. For as long as I’m in town, whenever they see me they wave, smile, come running over to ask how it’s going. This has been happening everywhere I go.
The response is so gratifying that I might have kept asking about OPLAs even if I never found one. But as soon as I left Telluride and started exploring other small towns I did find them, surprisingly many of them.
I found the first one, a woman of 94, through the waitress at a cafe. The waitress was best friends with the woman’s great-granddaughter, and had been a part of the family for years. She called the woman, who lived in a nearby town, told her about me, and asked if I could come and talk with her. We arranged a time, I got directions to her house, and that was that, it was that simple.
All the OPLAs have invited me into their homes for the interview, with only one exception (“Oh, my house is too messy!”). I’ve sat with them in their living rooms or at their kitchen tables or out on their back decks, my notebook on my lap, my pen in hand. They’ve all been eager to engage with me, they’ve been open about their lives, both past and present. Even future. They’ve given serious thought to all my questions. We’ve been fully concentrated on each other, our attention has not wavered for the entire hour or two, sometimes even three, that we sit together. There’s been a great deal of laughing, and surprisingly few tears. I’ve been shown paintings, needlework, poems, crochet-work, and photographs, some of them of astonishing beauty. I’ve looked at hundreds of family photos on refrigerator doors. I’ve been held tight in loving grateful hugs. It’s an extraordinary experience.
Most surprising of all is the effect that being interviewed seems to have on most people. It surprises me every time. After I bring an interview to a close, the person I’ve been talking with does not look tired or ready to stop; in fact, they look animated, energized. And some have been nearer 100 years old than 90, and they haven’t gotten up the entire time to give their legs a shake. What’s going on?
I think it’s more than just a break from loneliness for them, since not all of the people I’ve spoken with have seemed lonely. I think it has to do with being listened to for an hour or two, with palpable curiosity and without judgment, with the focus completely on them. When I ask them at the end what it’s been like to be interviewed, many of them report that it’s the first time in a long long time that they’ve thought about themselves and their own lives. Many of them talk at length about each one of their family members, with pride about accomplishments and worries about difficulties. I keep pulling them back to themselves, to get them talking about their own life, their own feelings, their own memories. They seem to have lost the knack. As one 98 year old woman told me when we’d finished:
“I’m so revved up, my brain feels like it just woke up. I haven’t remembered all those things for ages, and now you’ve got me started. It’s all so long ago, and it looks different now. It’s so interesting! And even the hard parts don’t make me sad anymore, they’re over, and I can see that..…well….they were just a part of my life, along with all the good parts. It’s going to be hard to get to sleep tonight, I want to go on remembering and thinking about all these things.”
Could there be a more gratifying reaction to an interview?
I’ve been doing this for only a month now, so it’s too early to come to any conclusions, or to even decide exactly what I’m going to do with all this information I’m collecting. I feel I’ve barely begun. From what I’ve seen so far, being over 90 is truly a distinct stage of life, different even from 80. There are physical differences, of course, though in this age group, the ones who are able to live alone are all healthy in mind and body.
More interesting to me are differences that I’m just beginning to become aware of. They have to do with attitudes towards the world, towards life, even towards self. I’ll hope to learn more about this in the upcoming second month of these interviews.
Another month! Lucky me!