Throwaway People

Posted on August 28, 2014 by Robert Ringer


A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had an appointment in Arlington, Virginia.  As we were walking toward our destination, we noticed a thin, elderly lady standing near the street corner.  She was exceptionally well-groomed and dressed in a colorful, neatly pressed outfit.

Leaning on her cane, she was looking around in what appeared to be a confused manner.  We were concerned, because it was a very hot and humid day.  As we approached her, my wife asked if she needed any help.  She smiled sweetly and said that she was looking for her bank, but was not certain she was walking in the right direction.

She went on to explain that she had glaucoma and could not see very well.  When she gave us the name of her bank, I told her that it was just on the other side of the street and that we would be happy to help her across.  She appeared to be pleased by the offer.

My wife and I took hold of her arms, waited for the streetlight to change, then slowly helped her to the other side.  As we approached the curb, she explained that even though she was not totally blind, she could not see the curb clearly enough to be sure she wouldn’t trip and fall.

We carefully guided her up over the curb and onto the sidewalk in front of the bank.  She assured us that she could make it into the bank on her own, so we wished her a nice day and started to turn away.  But as we did, she began talking to us about her life and her family.  She said she was ninety years old, and her eldest sister was still alive at age ninety-nine.  She also mentioned that she had another sister who had passed away.

Several times I gently told her that we had to be running along because we didn’t want to be late for our appointment.  And each time, she went on to another subject … her deceased husband … her osteoporosis … her medical-doctor son.  She seemed genuinely excited to have someone to talk to, and clearly did not want the conversation with two strangers to end.

It was obvious that she was very lonely.  One side of me wanted to stay and talk to her for as long as she wished, but the other side of me was thinking about our appointment.  Awkwardly, we finally ended the conversation.

As my wife and I walked away, we turned around and watched that adorable little lady walk, with considerable difficulty, toward the door to the bank.  I couldn’t help wondering if her doctor-son knew that his mom was walking by herself in hot, humid weather.

As a result of that unexpected encounter in Arlington, many thoughts drifted through my mind during the remainder of the day.  First and foremost, I thought about my own mother, who passed away at the age of one hundred and one.  She was the ultimate housewife/mom at a time when such an occupation was considered noble.  She spoiled the heck out of me, and I loved every minute of it.  More important, I loved her dearly … and still do.

I remembered how, from the time I was about six years old, whenever I spotted the smallest bit of debris on the floor, I would pick it up and throw it in the wastebasket because I didn’t want my mom to have to bend over.  Now, with six children of my own, I’m still in awe of the fact that merely by being who she was, she motivated me enough to want to spare her any unnecessary work.

I also thought about how long I went between visits to my mom … and about the time, when my brother-in-law’s mother died and I offered my condolences, he said, in a somber, reflective tone, “You only have one.”  As we go about our day-to-day lives, I guess it’s pretty easy to forget the obvious.

Hugh Downs, now ninety-three, has often expressed his belief that there is more prejudice against the elderly than any other group in our society.  He is especially offended by the cry to get “older, dangerous” drivers off the road.  As he puts it, “We should get all dangerous drivers off the road.”

I believe one of the chief reasons we tend to brush aside the elderly is that the society we live in is not only drowning in materialism and narcissism, but it’s a throwaway society as well.  No one fixes anything anymore.  When something is broken, you just throw it in the trash, then buy a new and better model.

Thus, it’s only natural that we do the same with old people, right?  After all, they can’t be fixed, so why not just throw them away.  It’s too bad we place so little value on the elderly, because, on the whole, they have so much to offer — wisdom, purity of thought, and, above all, tranquility.

If the medical community could transplant an eighty-year-old brain into a twenty-one-year-old skull, one can only imagine how much better the life of the young person who owned that skull would likely turn out.  Youth really is wasted on the young.

I believe it’s healthy to be conscious of the fact that we’re all on our way to the same destination:  old age (provided we’re luckier than the Tim Russerts and Tony Snows among us).  And when we arrive at that destination, let’s hope that we won’t be walking down a street alone, cane in hand, barely able to see the curb … and that our children will visit us often.

As Katharine Hepburn once said, “Life is hard.  After all, it kills you.”

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

26 responses to “Throwaway People”

  1. Tom says:

    One if your most important, poignant entries ever. Thank you.

  2. Mike says:

    My fantastic Mother will be 95 in 6 weeks, and while it hasn't been a week since I last spoke with her, I am sure she will forgive my calling her as soon as I finish typing this. Thanks for inspiring me again!

  3. Jeff says:

    Consider also the current push for euthanasia in the western world. We need to protect elderly people from being led to the idea they should simply dispose of themselves. This lady was lonely and easily manipulated. Luckily she met you on the street. What about others, perhaps family members, that would sooner see her disappear?

  4. brent says:

    Thanks Robert… seems I got something in my eye just now…

  5. Narcissism and Materialism! That nails it. And that is what we have in Government… and elsewhere. What to do about it? How did it get that way? We can only conjecture based on what we think was better in our generation. In the current excessive N and M lies destruction We've had Creation and Perpetuation, so now, according to the Ancients of India, we inevitably have Destruction. And then Creation again. My mother died in 04 at the age of 93. Unlike Mr. Ringer's experience, and other he mentions, I had a problem with my mother and the emotional abuse I experienced starting at about age eleven. I enjoy reading about healthy mother-son relationships and wish mine had been. But, what I became in good ways grew out of a problematic childhood. Long life may not always be a blessing. I know of so many cases. But, for good or for ill, we all cling. It is a matter of attachment.

  6. Rock Shaw says:

    Thank You for helping that fine lady!! I have always believed that when we help someone that we will ourselves be helped by someone at a time when we need a helping hand or that someone will help a loved one when they need help!! I was taught this growing up and the small community that I grew up in practiced this on a continual basis!

  7. Jim Hallett says:

    This is a repeat article but well-worth reading again. The USA definitely does not treat its elderly as other cultures (e.g., the Japanese) do – with respect and reverence. It is all about the next latest thing, and so many shun responsibility, and one wouldn't want to be inconvenienced helping an older person and miss out on some party or text message or whatever! And now with ObummerCare, some panel will decide which people get to be treated and which will be just left alone to die. It is a sad state of affairs, so one needs to keep their own values and focus in place, and shed some light in all the dark places. NO ONE is a throwaway!

  8. Patricia Moynihan says:

    Older people really do need to be careful. I was in line at the ATM, behind an older woman (I'm 72 but I don't feel anywhere near that). She had difficulty using the ATM. She turned to me and asked me to get $100 for her. She gave me her card and PIN. I got the money and asked her to wait. When I had finished, I explained that she must never give anyone her card and details. She said that her son usually accompanied her to the ATM. I asked if I could write a note for him. I asked him to change her PIN. Please everybody, if you have difficulty at the ATM, walk away. Don't share your details with anyone. Be careful!

    • stogiechomper says:

      I had the same experience with an elderly gentleman, who couldn't figure out how to withdraw $400 from the ATM. I walked him through it and he got the money. But if I were a crook, it could have turned out badly for him.

  9. James Saint says:

    I thought I recognized this article that was originally posted in Oct 2011. Still very good points in the article.

  10. Walter Cortes says:

    Call it Narcissism, Materialistic, or any other name but the essence of the story is undeniable. We, the humans, gets so busy with life, striving for all the successes we aim for, and somehow get there. In the end, out of our busy-ness, we forget the reality that we, too, not at a distant time, will be old and gray….and will need somebody (hopefully our children and/or families) to help us along the "curbs of life." Thank you for such a reminder, Robert, thank you!

  11. Marte says:

    I have an 85 year old neighbor who has two very successful children – and if he didn't have us, he really would have no one except the lady he pays to clean his house. His daughter-in-law calls now and then to check on him and my husband and I feel like she's hoping to hear he's about to check out. (He DOES have a bit of money.) They live only an hour away, but only come to see him about 4 or 5 times a year. They only have one day a week off from their veterinary practice – except for 3 or 4 vacations each year.

    His daughter, who lives on the other side of the country, calls every couple of weeks – if she has time. She's a busy doctor, so must be forgiven.

    I give thanks every day that I have "better kids" than that.

  12. cara says:


  13. Jim says:

    Great one Robert. Thanks for making me choke up! :)

  14. David says:

    Now that I have lost both of my parents (my father a month ago), I teared up while reading this article. I always make it a point to help others, especially those with physical infirmities or weaknesses or even with their hands full with such tasks as opening doors, etc., but I will do my best to do even more to help others that are weaker than I.

  15. sixxfingers says:

    A few decades ago for a short time I drove a cab in a small town. I picked up a little old lady who was so sweet and genuinely enjoyed engaging me in conversation during a brief ride to a local airport. She explained she was 87 and meeting up with four of her octogenarian friends and flying to Atlantic City to "!party!" for four or five days. But what put the bigger smile on my face was when she said, "When our kids find out we are gonna be in soooo…muuch…truuuuuble!" At that moment I really wanted to go with them.

  16. stogiechomper says:

    If you want to see "throw-away" people, visit an elderly care facility. So many of those old folks are lonely, warehoused by their offspring who rarely visit. I remember one elegant, intelligent woman who had just been admitted, and was my mom's roommate. When I left that day, I saw her sitting in her wheelchair in the hallway, looking very sad and depressed. It was as if she suddenly realized that she was relegated to such anonymity in the last few weeks of her life, with nothing to look forward to. It was sad.

  17. AnnS says:

    I am a physician and I have worked in several nursing homes/elder care facilities. It has made me vow to never allow any of my family members to placed in such a place, except for shot term rehab after an injury. These places are truly warehouses for the unwanted elderly. No matter how hard the staff tries, it will never have the emotional support that a family can provide.
    Fortunately, my grandfathers both were able to die at home in their sleep. One grandmother died when I was a child and the other had a peaceful passing at home with the help of hospice. Now I am working on moving my parents closer to me so I can care for them as they age.
    It is a lot of work to provide the care that family members need, whether they are children or elders, or just a sick spouse. Our society does not make it easy to do the caretaking so we each have to find our own way. It saddens me the way so many people warehouse their families from day care to school to nursing homes all through life with so little time to actually experience caring for the people they care about the most.

  18. Phil says:

    Ann, what a great post. My mother has been caring for my Dad with Alzheimer's and I am amazed by the sacrifice that she has made to do so. But it brings them both peace. I visited with him last week after time overseas. He hardly recognizes me but I can tell he feels peaceful in my presence. It is a terrible disease. Our society really has changed dramatically from the days when family was valued over almost all else.

  19. Serge says:

    Hopefully it isn't the mentality of throwaway products like electronics and even cars with their leases, that has lead us into putting our elders out to pasture prematurely. After all there are products, then there are people. If after an auto accident are we going to rush over and see if the car can be saved or the person?

  20. Robby Bonfire says:

    High technology destroyed the nuclear family, starting with the lack of communication now, between older and younger people. This is because change is effected so rapidly in today's world that the younger generation is now more knowledgeable than the elderly generation, on all these high tech systems and gadgets.

    The elderly have lost their venerable status in the world, and their collective wisdom and life experience is going to waste, when it comes to nurturing the younger generation, which could not be more socially alienated, disinterested, and unresponsive to mature guidance and counsel.

  21. chasc says:

    Are you recycling content now? I'm fairly certain I've read this story before – probably several years ago. I'm a huge fan obviously, but was surprised to see a reprint without any sort of notice to that effect.

  22. Annette says:

    If you did recycle this content…thanks because I'm a new reader and enjoyed it very much!!

  23. Phiosophizer says:

    As human ingenuity, inventions, science and technology soar upwards, our sociology is spiraling downwards at the same pace. Are these two facets related, do they have to be deflective of each other? Are these phenomena always going in opposite directions? Does one influence the other, and always for the worst?

    I would love to get Roberts perspective on this, as I am not sure they have to be at odds with each other. I think it just might be the way OUR world here turned out, but is it a Universal Law and does it have to be this way?

  24. Richard Lee Van says:

    Yes, some old folks, like me LOL, have wisdom to pass to the young, if they will listen, BUT, too many oldies are like my ol' dad whose thinking was scrambled yet insisted I and others ought to agree with him/them. Age alone DOES NOT cause Wisdom!

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