Yesterday, as I left a doctors appointment, walking down a small residential street I heard a call from between two houses. I stopped and looked. I saw an old man, maybe 75 years old, hunched over behind some garbage bins, holding onto a walker.
Our eyes met and he called me over again to help him get back up to his walker. As my sight adjusted to the scene, I noticed his pants were around his ankles. It became clear that he had a stomach issue and sought the closest semi-private spot for bittersweet relief.
I knew what I was in for, but I felt worse for him. How humiliating it must be to call to a stranger as you just half shit yourself in public.
Before diving into the problem, I first asked if there was someone I should call to help. Family? “My wife is at home”, he answered. Clearly that was a dead end path to follow. 75 years on this planet and nobody of any strength to depend on. It was all on me. Fuck.
I struggled to help him back up to his walker. His legs shook and buckled beneath his weight, with no power to simply stand – even with assistance. The man had yellow-brown smears on his shirt and coat and I tried my best to limit my contact.
Weak is an understatement for how I felt. Powerless perhaps? It’s hard to move 170+lbs of dead weight when you can’t really get your back into it.
Besides the event of the moment, the gentleman had obvious issues with basic self care. This was his life on the regular.
I was making no gains, so I walked back to the street to get some help. I saw a guy walking with his girlfriend and thought “here’s his chance to show his girl how he’s a good guy”. I was wrong – I got a lame excuse and off they went.
I hailed another guy and he didn’t hesitate. Looking back, I can understand how it might have looked like some elaborate scam. As a city-dweller, that was my first instinct when the old man called for me. But within a second of looking at the gentleman, it was quite obvious this was a real situation.
Teamwork won. We struggled, but got the guy back on his walker. He pulled up his pants and we helped him back to the street.
All the while we asked the gentleman questions. He had just come from an appointment at the same clinic as me. He had planned on walking (?!?) to his home on Cosbourn Avenue – about a two hour journey given what I expected of his maximum pace. But he insisted there was nobody we wanted to call for help.
The gentleman, my helper and I parted ways, but I’ll never forget the final look the gentleman gave me. The look itself burned into my brain, but I’m still deciphering what it meant and what he was trying to communicate to me. It was some combination of humiliation and sadness. I wonder if he was crying for help with his eyes, while telling me he was fine. That look has been haunting me.
I walked away towards my car that was parked about 100 metres down the street. As I opened my door I looked back and could make out his silhouette but could still sense his eyes on me. I feel like I abandoned him. I thought about offering him a lift, but he was covered in shit. Fuck. What was I supposed to do? I had already offered numerous times to call family, the police or an ambulance. He refused, and I can understand. Sometimes you just want to be left alone to lick your wounds. My final thought as I drove away was that at least he’s out in the open and can more easily get help if he needs it again.
Today I wonder who this man is. What’s his story? Is he going to die soon or does he have to live like this for another 10 years?
This can and will probably happen to many of us. We take our strength and health for granted. This old, feeble man once ran and jumped as a child. But during his last hours, months or years, he is burdened by complete dependence on others. It sucks, but we can fight it.
Weight training and exercises to help with hip mobility and leg strength are immensely useful for maintaining your quality of life. Perhaps there’s nothing this man could have done to prevent his predicament, but many do have a choice.
I’ve also wondered what happens to people who don’t plan for the day they can no longer take care of themselves, whether or not they have children themselves. Many people do have kids, but live an impractical distance away. Others spent decades allowing their relationships with their children to rot on the vine.
I am also left with the impression that on the aggregate, humans are seen as expendable machines with a useful working life. At the individual level our relationships are infinitely valuable. But society at large – the general public, corporate entities, political systems, etc. – seeks to extract every ounce of value from humans during the best years of their lives, only to leave them to mainly fend for themselves during the worst years of their lives.
People are brainwashed to devote the best, most productive, healthiest years of their lives to a system that doesn’t care about them and will discard them once proven redundant. Your boss won’t be there to wipe your ass when you’re sick. He doesn’t give a fuck. You may have been the best widget maker in the city, but none of that matters when you’re keeled over in a back alley because you shit yourself.
Life has to be more than working, suffering and then dying.
You need to spend your healthy years on yourself, your friends and your family. What matters is the family you’ve built and the friendships you’ve fostered. You need to plan for the moment you become dependent on others.
Perhaps that is what this gentleman was trying to tell me with his eyes.