How Do You Make a Room Full of 90-Year-Olds Feel 18? Ask Them To Dance

How a young man brought joy to a senior home by asking one simple question.

july-august-2016-best-stories-senior-homeRebecca Mock for Reader's Digest

In 1998, I went to visit my grandma Rose in an old folks’ home. At the time, she was 90, and I was 28, and I was about to go off for two years of grad school. This was the last time I ever saw her.

She’d been living there for about 15 years, and I’d been to see her a lot. But it was becoming a bit sadder, partly because the place was full of people who were grasping at the last stages of their lucidity. Even worse—and I know it might sound like a horrible thing to say, and I felt bad for thinking it—it was taking her longer and longer to recognize me. I didn’t know how to handle that.

When I saw her on this day, she was really excited because they had a sundae bar/Perry Como music hour in the common room.

I’m not a big fan of Perry Como, and I’m not a big fan of ice cream, but I was a really big fan of Grandma Rose, so I said, “Let’s go!”

I didn’t feel any less discomfort when we got there. The Perry Como was coming from a boom box at one end of the room. There was a great big chasm, and on the other end, all these people were seated and just staring at the boom box.

My grandmother and I rolled over, and she introduced me to everyone, saying, “This is my grandson, and he’s going to Paris.”

They responded, “How nice to meet you” and “How handsome you are” and “That’s very nice.” Then, when everything was said and done, we just kind of settled, and I became one of them. We just stared at that boom box.

Then a woman in a wheelchair sitting next to me asked if I’d ever heard of Perry Como. I told her I had, and she told me how much she loved him. Then she told me this story about the war—she didn’t say which war—when her husband and all the other men in her town were off fighting. They missed the men, but what they really missed was dancing. They missed it so much that they would rent out a gymnasium once a month and get a record player and play songs. Her favorite was Perry Como.

She went off into her head for a little while, and she looked like she was really enjoying herself. Finally, she said, “I really miss dancing.”

I was feeling uncomfortable and didn’t know what else to say, so I asked, “Do you want to dance?”

And she said, “Yes.”

So I wheeled her out into the Grand Canyon that was separating the people from the boom box, and I lifted her arm up and twirled under it, and I twirled her wheelchair around, and we laughed a lot. When it was over, I thanked her and wheeled her back.

Then I noticed a lot of little old ladies smiling at me. So I asked another one to dance, and she asked someone else to dance, and we danced again, and then we split off. And pretty soon, we had snowballed into this great big geriatric cotillion.

While I was dancing, I remembered my grandmother’s 75th birthday. We were at a restaurant called the Pickle Barrel, and we were eating pickles out of a small barrel on the table. I asked her what it was like to be 75 years old.

Without even thinking, she said, “It feels like it always does. My mind still feels very young, 18, but my body just won’t do the things I want it to do anymore.” Then she told me a theory that she had that people get locked into a certain age and stay that way for the rest of their lives. It was kind of amazing.

Back at the dance, I saw my grandmother across the room, and of course, I danced with her, which was really great. When you’re watching someone decline, it’s really easy to get caught up in the deterioration and forget how much you love that person.

I realized that the reason I had felt so uncomfortable was my fear of watching her grow older and my powerlessness to do anything about it—and the thought of losing her and my powerlessness to do anything about that. And then I realized, watching everyone, that if I felt that way, I couldn’t imagine what they felt like.

The ice cream arrived, and some people stayed dancing, and others made a beeline for the cart, and everybody was eating and dancing. They looked like the ages that I presumed they felt, and they lit up that room like chandeliers. And I stayed dancing with my grandmother.

I’ve realized over time how rare it is to see people as they see themselves. And there I was with this 18-year-old woman who was dancing with someone she loved, who loved her back.

*Told live at a Moth show at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York, NY

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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Robert Weinstein
Robert Weinstein, 45, is a librarian from Brooklyn, New York.