[OPINION] The agility of the aged

“Excuse me, do you know anything about motor cars?” the voice came from a cool-shaded parking garaged at the entrance to my sister’s flat in Johannesburg. It echoed from the mouth of a well-dressed lady with freshly blow-dried ash blonde hair and a touched up rouged lip.

Both my sister and I rushed to her assistance, we had trouble understanding what the problem was at first. Her hazards were flashing but her car wouldn’t start. No, we do not know a lot about motorcars, but I love an older person. I love an older person like some people love puppies. With an open heart and reckless abandon, and both of us were ready to engage in an abridged course of mechanics on YouTube to help her out. It turned out her battery was dead. She was openly irritated about the fact that she was going to be late for church. She scrambled through her purse for the AA’s number and my sister made the call. The woman had no cell phone of her own so the AA took my sister’s number instead and we left her standing in the cool, knowing we had assisted to the best of our ability.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but pensioners have the ability to ignite some sort of magic in me. They bring to the surface a version of myself that far outweighs my own expectation of what “the best” looks like. My patience increases tenfold so does my otherwise lacking ability to pay attention and listen with intent and lot of interest. They hold the remote to my heart so to speak.

I looked at my sister on the way up the stairs to her flat, we exchanged glances of empathy, and then I spoke: “Shame”, I said, “I hope she’ll be okay”. My sisters gaze morphed from empathy to irritation at lightning speed. “Ja, shame. Nevermind the fact that she’s the one who sat across from me at the body corp meeting and tried her best to get rid of my kitten”. I was shocked. Absolutely shocked. This sweet woman? What?

Psychologically, a feeling of empathy or heightened compassion are natural reactions of “big-hearted” people. But these are also emotions that can be confused with pity. Why do we pity older people? The lines between these reactions are blurry and pity is a psychological response all by itself. Being “big-hearted” may be a virtue, but pity isn’t always granted the same degree of respect. Pity is a negative evaluation of someone else’s situation. In the case of the elderly, they’re automatically susceptible to our pity without our own recognition of it because we automatically associate being older with loneliness, suffering, being incapable, a lack of independence or worse still, being the sitting ducks of a society waiting to take advantage - the perfect victims of pyramid schemes and other unprofitable financial decisions as well as a host of other digital scams. But the assumption that all of these are norms befitting any elderly person are wildly ignorant.

That same night my wife, an avid Derren Brown fan - an English mentalist and illusionist - turned on one of his Netflix specials. The aim of the show ultimately was to change the public’s perspective on how we view older people. In this specific episode, Brown trains four pensioners to steal a painting from a London art gallery in broad daylight. They do succeed after about six weeks of training in sleight of hand and pull it off quite easily. Over and above the technical training they required, the four pensioners had something no other con artist had, they eliminated the element of suspicion. Why? Because no one suspects an old person. And Brown does an excellent job of proving that they’re the invisible talent of a society, and he forces us to see them in a different light. And he succeeded.

I thought about earlier that day, about the lady who needed help with her car. She could have used her age and our instinctive response of compassion, empathy and pity to her advantage. She could have played helpless and taken our phones, asked for money, played on our emotions to help her out and in the process, helped herself out and I would not have been mad – not even a little. Just like when watching Brown’s episode, I sat mouth wide in awe.

I’m not saying all of the elderly should resort to a life of crime and con artistry but there are lessons to be learnt from older people, practical ones, that go far beyond their engaging storytelling, the lessons they’re able to share from their lives lived and the wisdom of their years.

See them in a different light, it will steal from your pity and fuel your respect. Because really, older people are the best... at everything it turns out.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.