My grandfather, Alvin Bogart, is a storyteller.
After 97 years, he has a lot of them, from his time in the U.S. Navy to his days as father and grandfather.
Each came with a lesson for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But when he fell and dislocated a hip and broke his femur, we found new lessons to learn and stories to tell.
He persevered, even through three hours of surgery and plenty of pain. He advocated for himself, right down to how he wanted his anesthesia administered. He smiled, cracked jokes, and charmed the nurses and the doctors, knowing that kindness gets you far. He’s patient, and even willing to take orders from those who know better — once in a while.
But that doesn’t mean any of his experience has been easy. As the population of those living to over 85 continues to grow — it’s expected to reach nearly 20 million by 2060 — we have to pay more attention to their needs and ensure they’re getting adequate care. What’s clear is how important it is for people like my grandfather to be their own advocates, and to have others to advocate for them. At a time when health insurance — even Medicare — dictates care, that becomes even more critical, but also all the more challenging. The United States has ranked near the bottom in terms of how we care for older adults, economically, socially and medically. That has to change.
But even as his medical situation challenged him, my grandfather would hearken back to the best of his stories, so his doctors and nurses might learn a thing or two.
He’d tell his nurses how he taught a friend to sail — only to have his friend teach him how to live a “long, healthy life.” (Lesson #1: Throw out the salt and sugar in your house, watch what you eat day to day, but always be willing to treat yourself when you go out — especially for a deli sandwich.)
He told a doctor the story of the first time he participated in a court martial panel as a young U.S. Navy ensign, and how surprised he was, when the testimony ended, to be asked what he thought before anyone else was asked, even though everyone else was older than he. (Lesson #2: Always seek the opinions of others before voicing your own, especially if you outrank them.)
And when he needed a blood transfusion, Grandpa was quick to recall how he heard a fellow sailor make a crude, racist remark, and how he responded by asking him whether he’d wonder who he was getting blood from if he was badly injured. (Lesson #3: Treat others the way you’d treat them if your life depended on them.)
It’s up to us to meet the richness of our grandparents’ stories with the care they deserve. That means rethinking health care and social policy to reflect an aging population. Then we must do something that sounds simple, but often isn’t: Listen to and learn from them.
Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.