Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Aging in France
Earlier this month I was in Paris to attend the International Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics. Before the meeting started my husband and I did a little touring in the beautiful countryside of Brittany and Normandy. Hiking through the country on rural paths by fields of cattle, horses and vegetables and old stone houses we encountered a few French elders, one of whom shared a hike with us. A fan of Obama, she warmed to us immediately when we told her we were Americans. She explained that she hiked through her hills on a daily basis to keep active and healthy. After we said our adieus and parted ways, my husband and I spent the remainder of our hike musing over what it might be like to grow old in such beautiful surroundings. It seemed like a wonderful idea – old traditions, great food, beauty and health care for all. What’s not to like? A few days later we discovered another wonderful reason to grow old in France.
We were in a post office in Paris. The post office was bustling with activity – many Parisians use the post office as their bank and there were several lines of people waiting to make financial transactions. We were in a retail line to buy stamps for our postcards. Directly in front of us stood an older woman in her late 80’s or 90’s. Through a combination of French and sign language she asked us to save her place in line – something we were happy to do – and she moved away to stand next to the wall, leaning into it to help keep herself on her feet. We watched her carefully to make sure she didn’t fall and smiled to reassure her that she was going to have a turn before us. It wasn’t long before the clerk helping our line of customers noticed her leaning on the wall and called her up to the front of the line to take her order. Everyone moved away to give her room at the counter and she completed her transaction. It seemed like a very nice thing to do and we noticed that the six customers in front of us seemed happy to accommodate the needs of their older neighbor. But it didn’t stop there.
The clerk asked her if she needed to have a taxi called and if she needed to sit down. “Oui, si’l vous plait” was the response. Immediately the clerk left her line of 10 or 15 customers to go to the back room to find a chair. She brought the chair out into the lobby and then helped the woman over to the chair. After she was comfortably seated, the clerk asked her name and began to address her as Madame Delauney. Her complete attention was directed at Madame Delauney – none of it on her line. Everyone in the line was watching the interaction between the postal clerk and the elder in silence and apparently with patience, with the exception of an American who was several people behind us who began to complain. He told us all that he could get this post office to run efficiently in two days if he was put in charge of things and made other comments that I am sure few people in line understood. No one commented on his comments and the postal clerk continued to see to the well-being of Madame Delauney. She asked one of her co-workers to call a taxi for her and told her to sit there until someone came for her.
Returning to her station, the clerk began to wait on the next customer, an older gentleman who was mailing skeins of wool to his sister and needed a box to put them in. She slowly and deliberately selected one of her mailing boxes and helped him put the wool into it only to discover that it was not large enough. Needless to say, this action further incited the unhappy American behind us who began to search for an alternative line that looked more promising than ours. We had plenty of time in line to see the taxi driver enter the post office and began to look for Madame Delauney. He didn’t sit outside the post office in his taxi honking his horn – he came in and asked where she was. Our clerk left her station yet again to personally escort him to Madame Delauney and to help her stand and take his arm. The cab driver was attentive and careful with her as he escorted her out of the building and into his waiting cab.
You might already figure out where I am going with this rather amazing story. I had seen Parisians treat young children with this type of kindness and disregard for their own activities before but never had seen it with elders. Back to our original fantasy of growing old in France we could now add to the benefits of beauty, tradition and health care, kindness and concern for people of all ages who needed a little help with their daily transactions. It was a remarkable experience and one I am not likely to forget as I watch the scorn and impatience on the faces of those who are standing in line in my local grocery store, post office or bank here in the nation’s capital. Who needs assisted living when a society assumes it is their duty and privilege to make sure everyone is okay?
--Donna Wagner, President OWL National Board of Directors