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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Aging and human connection in the conference room...


I walk into the sterile conference room, realizing that everyone there is “of a certain age”. If I had to choose a demographic descriptor for this crowd, I’d just say “old”, and they’d probably kill me if they could read my mind. A young, as in twenty-something, woman approaches me with a clip board and we exchange forms. She assigns me number three, which I hope means a short wait, and tells me I can find a seat at the rectangular table. My fellow brethren look up at me, each new arrival becoming momentary entertainment until embarrassment or distraction takes over and they go back to their own little worlds, reading a magazine or looking at their phones. I rummage through my briefcase and discover that the piece of work I meant to bring with me is still sitting in my printer at home. Darn! This is not good! And then I remember that I, too, can plunge into my iphone universe. Oh, the glories of technology, shielding us from boredom and communication with others. 

We’re all here to get a vaccination for shingles, which is a painful and horrific thing, according to my sister and my father who both contracted this virus-driven skin rash. I watched them suffer, so I’ll do anything to dodge that one. I smile at the couple sitting kitty-corner to me, and mindlessly say “how’s it going?” Expecting little in return in this sea of silent waiting people, I’m surprised that they want to chat, telling me that they had their shot and are waiting the prescribed 15-minute window to make sure they don’t have a reaction, which ranges from nothing to headaches, fever, diarrhea and a stuffy nose. “You look fine to me”, I quip, as they smile, a few minutes later picking up their bags and happily leaving this ad hoc club. 

The shot itself is uneventful, and the guy giving it – the second young person in this cohort – is pleasant, sweet and maybe even a little handsome. For the same reason I am here – my age – I had a flu vaccine last week and that was also no big deal. In fact, I’m pretty good at this, I think, as I indulge in feeling proud of myself for something that requires little skill. Just as I am about to settle into my 15-minute window, an agitated man enters the conference room and when I tune in, I hear him arguing with the young woman, telling her that he doesn’t understand what she’s saying about insurance coverage. I have time to kill – at least another 11 minutes – so I listen, and then realize that I actually understand his problem and can help him. And so I do. The young woman seems relieved that someone else is handling him and walks away. 

As soon as I step into the conversation, the man stops shouting and listens to me, his body visibly relaxing. Soon, armed with a couple of questions I have supplied him, he goes out into the hallway to call the benefits gatekeeper at his insurance company. He is decidedly less agitated and more focused, and I think about how anxiety is a horrible thing when it makes it hard to think clearly, and that this man’s confusion and upset was clearly getting him nowhere. He returns to the conference room in about five minutes and seems relieved. “Did you get the information you needed?”, I ask him from my seat at the head of the conference room table. The space between us is beyond the cultural norm for communicating with a stranger in a sea of unknowns. But I ignore the norms that define this space as a silent waiting room. He shouts back to me, joining this normatively rebellious moment, saying, “I’m all set, but they’re crazy over there!” I nod in agreement. Most institutions – including health insurance companies – produce crazy rules and the employees who have to follow them often lose perspective, so he’s lucky that this call was an easy one. 

Once my 15-minute period is over, I get up to leave, passing this guy on the way out. He thanks me again for the helpful advice, but I know that it was the human connection that made the difference. Then, with a touch of worry in his voice, he asks if I had any reaction to the vaccination. Anxiety is a painful thing. And as I’m about to reply, he looks at me with a smirk and says, “Look how big your hair got!” I realize he’s joking, and I reply in kind, “Before the vaccine, it was this short”, gesturing a quarter-inch measurement with my thumb and pointer finger. We both laugh, and I think about the importance of being seen, of breaking through anonymity in social circumstances and ignoring the norms that mitigate against human connection. And I think about the saving grace of humor, as it slices through anxiety to produce a shared experience. And I have a feeling that as I age, that all of this will become even more important. 

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