8 April

Is This Me? In The Waiting Room.

by Jon Katz

I stayed away from doctors for many years, as younger people tend to do. When you are young, there is a feeling of immortality, it’s almost impossible to imagine getting old.

My generation, the boomers of the 60s were arrogant on top of it all, we thought we were changing and saving the world, and getting old was almost unimaginable.

When I go and see the doctor, as I did yesterday, I sit in the waiting room for a while and watch the other people coming in. Almost all of them are older people.

Health care is, to a great degree, about elderly care. As we get older, we begin to come apart. So much of health care is shaped by us. I used to joke about people who were always at the doctor, and now, of course, I am one of them.

Some of the older people come in alone, some with their spouses and partners. Many come with canes, or are in surgical boots, or in wheelchairs, or are leaning on the arms of their companions.

Some of the older people can’t make it alone or have no one to help them. They come in special medical transport cars.

They walk slowly, many in pain, and I notice that many of the nurses talk to them (me too, sometimes,) as if they are babies.

It’s curious, but I always think I am somehow different from them. In my mind, I am never old.

The world sees me in a different way. People have begun offering to carry purchases to my car, nurses offer to tie my shoes.

And I am up and running from dawn to well past dusk. I don’t mind being older, I’m good at it, better than I ever was at being young. It’s a rich and fertile and happy time for me.

But I also know it’s a race against time. Insurance companies want little to do with me.

Yesterday one especially sweet and warm nurse offered to tie my shoes when the exam was over, and when I said I could do it, she said, “oh no, you’ve paid you’re dues, you are entitled to some help. That’s what I’m here for.”

That didn’t make me comfortable. I don’t want to be patronized at any age. The world does not owe me a thing.

So I let her. Tying my left shoe is possible, but sometimes a strain. Sometimes, you just have to let go and go with the flow. Sometimes you have to put aside your pride and accept help. I never once imagined in my life needing help in tying my shoes.

My pride says no, my foot says sure.

I see the same couple in  the photo above in the waiting room often. They seem very close, each one helps the other to walk, sit down, and get up. They each have some foot problems.

The man saw my camera and asked about it. He is a photographer himself, he told me, and we had a good long talk about Leicas. I asked if I could take their photo, and they both said sure, why not.

When I see them, I always think of them as much older than me, but I suspect they are not much older than me. Some of the “old” people I see in these waiting rooms are probably younger.

I sometimes feel old, and I know I am old,  but I never picture myself as being old. I’m not like them. Or am I?

My perspective is skewed, I think because I am married to someone who is 17 years younger than I am. Maria seems both youthful and vibrant to me, and her energy and drive are infectious.

I never feel old around her.

I am busy all of the time, running all over the place with chores and my appetite for good deeds.

Yesterday,I ran around for much of the day getting flower seeds and potting soil for the Mansion. I love doing it, even though I can no longer carry or lift the big bag’s soil.

I realized last week that five or six of the attendees in my Mansion Meditation Class are younger than I am. That was a shock.

I believe in authenticity and honesty, and if I am as old as the people I see in the waiting room, I want to see it and acknowledge it. Identity is not about fooling yourself, it’s about knowing who you are.

The next time I see this couple, I am going to sit near them and talk to them. I have this eerie feeling that we are much more alike than not.

They just might be me.


  1. Jon…
    I don’t encounter much writing about older patients. I guess the medical profession doesn’t find the earmarks of age too exciting, and older people don’t enjoy drawing attention to their frailties. One book I read emphasizes the benefits of aging, but assumes good health.

    “This is what happens when you get old.” That is a common response. But age arrives in different ways. How you take care of yourself is a factor. So is genetics. Other times, it’s just unfortunate circumstances or a misguided risk assessment.

    When my surgery turned out unexpectedly, I became constrained by a lifestyle-altering routine. My wife had greater challenges, but she is tenacious and has good medical support.

    As newlyweds, we used to playact as being an old couple. We no longer need to act.

    Age and its limitations have taught us that, at some point, pushing ourselves must be supplanted with respecting our bodies. Like my old car, there are lots of well-used parts in there. Time for brawn to defer to brains.

    Now we must operate more efficiently; become more patient; moderate, and adapt to our changing physical limitations; follow sound advice; and avoid careless mistakes. The use of tools is a milestone in human evolution. As my physical abilities become more limited, I welcome the challenge of envisioning and discovering tools and improved methods that make life easier.

    These guidelines keep us going. The positive news is that added years of experience and maturity are enabling greater clear-sightedness and an improved outlook.

  2. Donald in Arizona – Such good messages in your “essay” on ageing and so well written. –Reading your piece is the thing I consider special this day.
    Thank you too, Jon, for your writing that has given me such good company down through many years now. –It all began with the radio interview where you relayed deciding to herd your sheep down to the church in town so the parishioners would be greeted by something special after their service on Easter morning. — Providing pleasure, doing it in an extraordinary way. A self thinker…It was a serendipitous experience that provided so much good to my life through your thoughts given in books that were always “page turners” for me.

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