At the drugstore today, waiting in line, a little old woman comes in the automated sliding doors. She is at least eighty, with her snowy hair rolled into thick curls that are properly arranged in front and haphazardly askew in back in the way of old ladies whose hair is set for them a couple of times a week. She is holding a shopping bag from the drugstore and clutching her car keys in her thin hands and her eyes are a little vague behind her thick glasses and she looks around, a bit lost, before coming up to the checkout counter.
She was just in here. She left her pocketbook in a shopping cart. She wants to know if the young man remembers. She was just here. She counted out change in front of him. The cart should be right here. She is certain it was right here. She only just walked out. Someone had moved the carts around. Does he know who moved them around?
She is completely lucid but somewhat disoriented in that way an older person can get - seemingly swallowed by the surrounding bustle. And the young man behind the counter just answers the questions she is able to think to ask. He did not see her purse. He does remember her. He is certain she pushed her cart off to the side. He doesn't know who moved the carts. He is trying to ignore her, hoping she will leave. He continues to check out the customers in line. The girl in front of me shifts impatiently, glares at the old woman, nudges her things forward on the counter.
And the old woman is standing there, looking around. She walks back to the carts. She explains again about leaving the bag. She doesn't know what else to do.
And then I am at the front of the line.
I tell the young man, "I will wait here while you get your manager and find out if her bag is in the lost and found."
He looks surprised. Hesitates. I stare. He picks up the phone.
Finally his manager, equally young, equally unconcerned, wanders out and talks to the old woman.... No. Talks OVER the old woman in the general direction of the old woman but also sort of to the young man at the counter saying he doesn't know but he'll check. Then he leaves. The young man rings up my purchase. I glare.
Finished, I ask the old woman, "Do you have your car keys? If something has happened to your bag, will you be able to get home?" She holds up the clutched little bundle that I had assumed were her keys. She has them. I help her look through the carts again. There are maybe a dozen of them. The bag is clearly not there and she has looked several times but we do it again. She tells me how she left it in the cart and someone must have moved the cart. The possibility that someone might have removed her bag from the cart is clearly unthinkable. I try to talk to her about what to do next. The manager has been gone for five minutes. I start to wonder if he is coming back. Another woman, middle aged with a warm face, walks over, clucks a noise of concern, puts her hand on the old woman's shoulder. We wait.
He finally returns. With an old worn black handbag dangling from one fist. He brings it to her. Tries to explain that she should make certain everything is in it. She doesn't seem to understand why, but she agrees to.
As I am leaving the young man behing the counter smiles at me brightly as if we have accomplished something together. As if he helped. I want to smack him.
What happens when we are old and no one listens? What happens when we are so old we have forgotten what questions to ask and how to get help? What would that young man think if he had to stand and watch some mindless store employee ignore HIS grandmother when she was distressed and helpless? And why does that sweet, befuddled old woman not have any relative who realizes that she is no longer able to safely run errands on her own? That it is only a matter of time before something bad happens to her?
Most everyone ignores the elderly. It is so easy to forget that in a short period of time, that will be us.
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