How Hanging Out With The Elderly Helped Me Overcome My Millennial Crisis

by Thomas Dean

I grip the two ends of the curling iron and spray the coil of hair. It sizzles like stovetop bacon and glistens like a shellacked floor. I loosen my grip and move on to the next patch of hair, comb it into a straight line, hold it up between my pointer and middle finger and then clasp it with the curling iron.

“I’m going to have you looking like Daisy Buchanan,” I say to my client, as I douse the burner-clenched strand with spray.

I’m trying to exude confidence, but I have no idea what I’m doing.

I tease the pasture of hard curls on her head with a comb. Instead of giving her the short, wavy haircut sported by nearly all women who qualify for AARP, I create a dirty-blonde bird's nest. “It’s a mess,” she says, looking in the bathroom mirror. I attempt damage control by combing and teasing her hair some more, but I only make the bird’s nest slightly less disheveled.

“Oh well,” she says. “It’s okay, you’re a man.”

She’s right. I am a man. I’m a man who styles hair, bathes, showers and shaves people. I make sure medication is taken and oxygen tubes are in place. I never thought I’d be this man, not when I graduated with a useless communications degree at 22, not when I moved across the country at 24 and certainly not when I moved again at 25.

Here I am, though, hair curler and oxygen tank in hand, serving as companion and caretaker to a handful of senior citizens.

Goodbye, San Francisco. Hello, Obscure College Town.

I spent the last year working at a magazine in San Francisco. Due to an editorial staff exodus, I was promoted from intern to assistant editor to de-facto web editor. I wanted to move, though.

I needed a change of scenery, a place where I could lay low while I ironed out the wrinkles of my life, set a new career trajectory and start the long overdue transition from Millennial man-child to adequate adult.

A friend who I had known since high school had recently moved to Indiana to pursue a master’s degree at the state school. He offered me the spare room in his apartment. It was a fresh start with cheap rent. I accepted.

My boss was fine with me relocating. She and I agreed that I would work remotely. I booked a flight and landed at the Indianapolis International Airport on November 3, 2013, my 25th birthday.

The first month of my Midwest tenure was a simple existence — every weekday, I telecommuted from coffee shops, exercised and went home to enjoy a cigarette and cocktail. Then, the day before Thanksgiving, my boss informed me that the bankrupt status of the co-owner froze the publication’s assets and I could not be paid.

I was income-less (in Indiana of all places), but I didn’t panic. This was a blessing in disguise, I thought. I could get a low-wage job to keep paying the bills and I would have time to work on personal projects and map out my future.

One month later, I was still unemployed and anxiety was creeping in. My friends were getting married, getting degrees in higher education, buying cars and raising children. I couldn’t get hired at a grocery store.

My bank account was dwindling and the polar vortex winter from hell was making me stir-crazy. I came to the Midwest to bring structure and direction to my life, but I was regressing. Instead of being productive, I wore a bathrobe all day and smoked e-cigarettes. They only thing that separated the mornings from the evenings was whether I was drinking black coffee or red wine in bed. I needed a job.

One night while perusing Craigslist, I found a help-wanted advertisement for an elderly caretaker position at an assisted living home -- no experience required. The next day I called the number in the listing and was immediately invited to interview.

Three weeks and one criminal background check later, I was hired.

I Care

For the last few months I’ve been a spotter, who, with outstretched arms, follows senior citizens around making sure they don’t fall.

When my clients are safely seated, I ensure their basic needs (food, health and hygiene) are met, and when all that is taken care of, I am their compatible companion.

I could write ad nauseam about the virtues of compassion, patience, empathy, etc. this job has instilled in me, but that would be cliché as hell, and I’ll save those sappy sentiments for a future grad school application.

Spending my days with the elderly has given me significant insight on my future, though, as well as a more holistic perspective on the post-collegiate limbo I call my life.

Most of what I do anyone can do. Showering, Depends changing and dinner delivering is unskilled labor. Yet, I’d like to think I’m damn good at my job. Instead of being merely present in my client’s lives, I choose to be an active participant. I look through old family photos. I knit. I discuss the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and James Joyce.

I sit in a cigarette-smoke-filled living room and debate whatever Fox News is propagating. I talk and joke and laugh and listen. My clients like me because of this; I know because they tell me they like me (one woman even told me she loved me -- platonically, she added), or they tell their kids they like me, or even better, they tell my boss they like me.

I’ve discovered that I’m capable of adapting to situations and taking on roles that many 25-year-old dudes would be unable or unwilling to take on, and my future line of work may have nothing to do with social media or click-bait Internet articles, but swimming in the thick of humanity.

Compared to hearing a 94-year-old man talk about the time he got a drink with John Steinbeck, or getting a hug from the sweetest old lady who has the most adorable Brooklyn accent, search engine optimization and cubicle confinement seem like pure lethargy.

To Live Is To Struggle

I've gotten a good look at what lies on the other side of early adulthood. My clients have raised children, struggled through economic depressions, fought in wars and endured the looming threat of Soviet-era nuclear annihilation. Many of them had remarkable careers as scientists, professors, editors, typesetters musicians and authors.

But the modern world they helped initiate is accelerating as they slow down. Their days of classroom lecturing and article publishing are over, and their loved ones have either passed away or will live on without them. They, too, face dilemmas of life, love, loneliness, money and especially health, but on a grand and existential level that Millenials won’t have to confront for decades.

Nothing is permanent, no matter how much prestige is associated with it. As long as we’re alive, there will always be the struggle of “What’s next?” or “Why me?”

It’s hard to be young, but it’s harder to be old, and I’m sure it’s hard to be anywhere in between. These people have taught me that it’s not if you struggle, it’s how you struggle, and part of that process is letting go of everything you’ve struggled for.

We call it the great recession and we call it a quarter-life crisis. I call it the Millenial existential directionless crisis, but for the sake of accuracy, maybe what we should be calling it, is life.

Photo via We Heart It