By Bruce Naughton
When I recently heard the song “Hello in There” by American singer-songwriter John Prine, I thought about my life’s work in medicine, the passage of time, and the blessing of having close family and friends.
The Jamestown-based band 10,000 Maniacs performs the version I have on my playlist. It’s both powerful and beautiful! Onetime Clarence resident Joan Baez sings a lovely rendition, too. I encourage you to search for both on YouTube.
“Hello in There” tells the story of an aging couple whose world has shrunk to the size of their city apartment. Their kids are grown and scattered and old friendships have faded with time. Their view out the screen door isn’t much, and their link to the outside world, the television news, just repeats itself.
It’s a bleak picture. Yet, there’s hope and opportunity in Prine’s chorus with his plea to us to engage with and celebrate those whose life experience exceeds your own: “Please don’t just pass by ’em and stare, as if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ”
I’ve been eligible for AARP discounts for many years, and yet, I don’t think of myself as a senior. Those working in geriatric medicine, as I do, joke that a senior citizen is anyone older than his or her doctor.
The reality is that the senior population is exploding: The first of the baby boomers turned 70 last year. While I’m not yet among them, I can see their tail lights.
Some now refer to “70 as the new 40,” since seniors are more active than ever. (I assume that phrase was coined by 70-year-olds.) Still, folks hitting that milestone can’t help but ponder their future, our future, as Prine did with his song.
I recently observed a group of seniors who participated in a panel discussion about aging. They were 62 years old and older, their health was good and their activities were plenty and varied. But their concerns and fears were common.
They talked about the need to keep moving because, as one gentleman said, “if you stop, you’ll rust!”
All want to stay in their homes, yet fear losing their mobility and being housebound and isolated from social contact. Social contact is very important. They expressed a wish to see their grandkids grow and start their own lives: They are eager to witness each new chapter in their grandkids’ stories.
While family is everything to them, the panelists shared a concern about becoming too dependent on their children or caregivers. Some used the word “burden.” Losing cognitive abilities was a common worry, as was their fear of outliving their nest egg.
Prine’s lyrics: “Old trees just grow strong, and old rivers grow wider every day. But old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ”
It’s kind of odd that I’d heard that song within a day of being in the audience of such a thought-provoking discussion. It’s not really one that comes up in the rotation. But that’s how the universe works sometimes, isn’t it? We see or hear things when we need to.
My takeaway? Embrace each day because we aren’t given an endless supply, engage with those people you hold dear because it is those connections that add quality to our lives, and never ever miss an opportunity with both stranger and friend to stop and say “Hello in there, hello.”
Dr. Bruce Naughton is chief medical officer for Medicare at Univera Healthcare