During the final part of the tour, we went into the center’s dining hall where the seniors were preparing to eat lunch. One of the staff members introduced the cohort and described our motives for visiting the center. Then, some of the cohort members introduced themselves, particularly those who were fluent in other languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Tagalog. Afterwards, we were encouraged to mingle with the seniors before we helped to serve them lunch. The director reminded us that any amount of conversation and interaction, even smiling and saying, “Hello? How are you?” would mean a lot to them. This could not have been truer for the man I found myself in a long conversation with, Michael.
Michael was originally from Illinois, but he moved to San Diego many years ago to escape the cold Midwestern winters. He was a military veteran who served in the Air Force during the final months of the Vietnam War, working in military airplane hangars repairing planes. He told me that he enjoyed serving his country. During the 1990s and early 2000s, he worked as an auto mechanic running smog tests in an auto repair shop. Michael proudly informed me that, aside from being impressed by his work, Michael’s boss had a lot of trust in him. Michael said that his boss left him in charge of the shop while Michael’s boss left on vacation during the first few weeks of the job. In his younger days, Michael would frequently drive to Sacramento, California to go cruising in his car at an event hosted in the city. He also enjoyed driving to San Francisco and exploring the city.
I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Michael. Although I am not a handy or mechanical person myself, my grandfather also has a deep love of cars and is a retired auto mechanic himself. This prior knowledge fueled the majority of my understanding of the specifics of working on cars and planes that Michael described to me in his story. However, the excitement and passion with which he delivered his narrative was what struck me the most. As I listened to Michael speak, I knew that the director’s words could not have been more accurate: A small amount of interaction, no matter how brief, would make the seniors’ day. I suspect that my decision to say hello to and ask Michael how he was doing opened up the first opportunity he had in a long time to describe his life to a younger person and an outsider to his life at the center. I truly feel honored to have had that privilege.
Looking back on this experience, I feel that the director’s words can be applied for anyone of any age. Be conscious of the people around you on a daily basis. Is there anyone who seems troubled or lonely? Saying hello and asking how their day is going is a simple action that could possibly be the most meaningful and positive thing that happens to them that day. In addition, you may find many common connections to your own life in their answer, just as I did with Michael’s story. The more I interact with senior citizens through this program, the more I realize how many commonalities people share in terms of experience, regardless of age. It is simply the ways in which people communicate their ideas and anticipate that others will respond to their ideas that creates obstacles to understanding. Saying “hello” and “how are you?” is one of the simplest ways to lead yourself towards that common understanding. What comes next after you ask that question is a mystery, but it holds endless opportunities for personal growth, understanding, and gaining a new perspective. All you have to do is take the first step and ask. Embrace and take advantage of that opportunity whenever you can.