Let me tell you about my friend. Just like the start of many friendships at Georgetown, we met in class. We got to know each other and started scheduling lunch dates. Now, she is one of the people in my life who I can call whenever I have exciting (or even completely mundane) news to share. She has become one of my show-up-at-her-front-door-without-question-because-I-need-help kind of friends. I’m guessing that many Georgetown students have a go-to friend like this, but I’m also guessing that none of these friends are 74 years old like Trudie.
College students tend to discount the elderly, with the possible exception of our grandparents. Since we don’t normally interact with the elderly in our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to stereotype them as cranky, unrelatable, technologically-challenged, old-fashioned, and “out of it.” We feel like we have to put up a more traditional front when we’re with them because they are conservative and wouldn’t approve of who we are or what we do.
I think the main reason that people are surprised by my friendship with Trudie is because society has created the expectation that friendships with the elderly should be restricted to community service projects. However, limiting ourselves to this only hurts us; by judging older people solely on a number, we’re neglecting their rich history and missing a potential treasure trove of stories, experiences, and ideas.
By luck, I met Trudie and realized how cool the elderly can be. She may enjoy my company, but I like talking to her and learning from her perspective just as much. While it’s true that Trudie somewhat fits the grandmother stereotype—looking out for my health and safety by calling me when it’s snowing to make sure that I’m warm—she also has a great sense of humor and an adventurous spirit. She’s not just a sweet and thoughtful old lady; she’s also a multifaceted person who has travelled places and had experiences I have only dreamt of while sitting in a Lau cubicle.
One day, I stopped by Trudie’s house to pick up a coat she had generously offered to lend to me for a black-tie event.
“You know, this belonged to the ambassador’s wife,” she said as she handed me the Christian Dior cloak. Turns out, Trudie worked for Sen. John Sherman Cooper, who was later appointed the first ambassador of East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). Trudie joined him abroad as his secretary, living in East Berlin for almost two years from 1975-1976 when she was 30 years old. During the height of Cold War tensions, she constantly heard barking and gunshots and saw Soviet tanks from her balcony. I remember learning about the Cold War through books and movies in high school history classes, but hearing a firsthand account made those events seem hauntingly real in a way I had never felt.
When I looked through some of her old photographs, I was struck by her youthful beauty and wondered what her early years were like. After a bit of prodding, she finally told me that she was chosen as the Kentucky Derby Queen in 1964 and actually got to be on stage with Johnny Cash.
Beyond telling me about the incredible moments in history she has witnessed, Trudie also shares my academic interests in journalism and political science and asks about my hobbies, family, and hopes for the future.
I’m so happy Trudie and I met, and I realize it might not have happened if I had been a typical undergraduate at Georgetown. I am a transfer student and hadn’t known many of the other students in my Biblical literature class. Otherwise, it may not have crossed my mind to introduce myself to the woman quietly sitting next to me. I easily could have never met Trudie and wouldn’t now have her in my life.
I hope that next time you see an elderly person, whether they’re a senior auditor in your class or just someone next to you in line at Starbucks, you don’t jump to conclusions based on stereotypes. Start up a conversation and you may be pleasantly surprised what comes of it. Making the initial introduction might feel uncomfortable, but try and remember how much harder it could be for a senior auditor, who already feels like the odd one out, to approach you first.
A good friend checks in on you, challenges you, and supports you. There’s no reason why age has to get in the way of that.
Image Credits: Josh Klein