Chat Benches with a Positive Spin

I’m 54 years old, and for 52 of those years, I was desperately lonely more often than not. So I’d like to think I can speak with good authority on this subject. There’s a certain stigma attached to loneliness. Being in that state makes you feel as if you’re a failure at life, because everyone who sees you as lonely tends to pity you or assume that you are, indeed, a failure at life. (And in case you’re wondering, the odds are quite high that you are NOT a failure. Please know that.)

Seclusion is a catch 22 situation. Often, to break out of it, you must first admit that you’re there, and admitting that you’re there could brand you as some substandard, clingy, desperate outlier, and that causes people to avoid you. Confessing to loneliness also makes you vulnerable, and opens you up to rejection.

So I was really intrigued when a friend shared an article with me about Chat Benches. I started looking into them, and I must say that I was delighted by the intent behind them, but not quite as thrilled by the media spin.

Chat benches seem to have originated in England, and the idea is quite simple. Put a sign on a bench that says, “The ‘Happy to Chat’ Bench: Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.” Brilliant.

I think of the many thousands of times that I’ve shared a bench with strangers and was too afraid to pass the time of day with them, for fear of making them uncomfortable. A bench with this type of sign would remove that hurdle, and make the moment pass by more pleasantly. And who knows? I might have made a new friend.

As we become more isolated, as we all bury our noses in our smart phones, we might need a little extra push to take that step into the land of social interaction. These benches provide just that sort of push. I applaud them.

I’ve read several articles on the subject now, and it seems that they launched this movement to coincide with United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. All well and good. The elderly quite often disproportionately suffer from loneliness and depression. The articles go on to describe how loneliness in that generation makes one susceptible to abuse and suicide. Also a legitimate concern.

Here’s where it gets sticky, though. As a friend says, “I think it’s a mistake, and unhelpful, to frame this as a ‘help lonely people by speaking to them’ story. Asking people to self-identify in public as ‘lonely’ is to ask them to publicly admit to social stigma, and asking the supposedly not lonely to provide public and demeaning charity by deigning to talk to the self-identified ‘lonely’ is to further that stigma. We could all benefit from talking more with each other in safe, casual public situations, stigma- and charity-free.”

I couldn’t agree more. I think these benches are a great idea. But I also think the media spin, and the public conversation, needs to shift. We’re all lonely at one time or another. We could all use new friends. We should all talk more, and listen more. I think everything that gets the community to interact with each other is worthwhile, and if part of that community just happens to be elderly, then so much the better.

What I hate is the idea that whoever sits on that bench first is projecting this “I’m lonely, please help me” image, and whoever sits there second is doing them a great favor. Based on the wording of the sign, that was not the intent of the creators of this movement. Good on them! But the articles I’ve read on the subject would have you believe otherwise, and that’s a great shame.

Hey, I just had a great idea! Perhaps every chat bench could be placed next to a Little Free Library. That way, the person who sits on this bench alone would have something to do until the next person comes along. The sign would make it obvious that person one isn’t so absorbed in the book that he or she isn’t willing to talk. And talking about books is a great ice breaker. Hmmm.

I envision a day when there’s a Chat Bench website, where you can register your bench and have it put on a map to indicate where the nearest bench can be found, just like does with its libraries. Incidentally, if you go to that website, you can see a bench design that includes little free library books in its base. (A bit pricey, but probably not that hard to imitate.) These two organizations could so easily go hand in hand. An idea whose time has come.

Meanwhile, if you do decide to put up a chat bench (and I hope you will), please make sure it’s in a high traffic area, so that the first person sitting there can avoid that wallflower feeling.

Bench Chat

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Every once in a while, you stumble upon an absolutely brilliant idea that makes you wonder why no one has thought of it before. It just makes so much sense on so many levels that you know it’s meant to be. That was my thought process when I saw this video.

Imagine this: a 95-year-old woman is living alone in her home after the death of her husband. She’s bored. She’s lonely. She worries that she could fall down and get hurt and nobody would know.

Enter a 27-year-old student who is new to the city and doesn’t know a soul. She, too, is lonely, and money is very tight for her. As we all know, rent in big cities is becoming outrageously expensive. And the more money she saves, the less she will owe in student loans, which is also an increasing problem.

Through a homesharing program, the student lives with the 95-year-old, and pays a reduced rent for the privilege, and now has a quiet place to study. The funds probably help the elderly woman as much as the savings helps the student. They both benefit from the companionship, and they both feel much safer. Best of all, they each make a new friend.


Yes, the student would need a fair amount of vetting. You wouldn’t want some old person being bullied and taken advantage of. But with some administrative oversight, I can see how this could be the ultimate win/win situation.

I think that there should be a homesharing program in every city. If there is an elder advocacy agency of some sort near you, please have them watch this video and then perhaps have them reach out to student housing offices at local universities. This is an idea whose time has come!


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A Sandwich Speculation

Back in 2006, the term “Sandwich Generation” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s used to describe those people who are “sandwiched” between caring for their children and for their aging parents. As life expectancies rise, more and more of us find ourselves in that situation. The term actually started floating around as early as 1981.

For reasons both intentional and unintentional, I have managed to keep myself sandwich-less. I chose not to have children, and unfortunately my mother died when she was 64, and I was 26. I never met my father. As much as I might grouse about the stress in my life, I really did get off easy.

I loved my mother, but she’d have turned 91 today, and it’s almost a guarantee that she’d be in very poor health had she lived. She was already showing signs of severe osteoporosis at the time of her death. She was also a lifelong smoker, and continued that habit even after being diagnosed with emphysema. Her hearing was already terrible. Does dementia run in our family? Who knows. None of us lives long enough to get to that point, it seems.

She would have also outlived her oldest daughter, with whom she had been living. I can’t imagine that she would have handled that well. (I once gave her a bit of bad news while she had a head cold, and it sent her to the hospital for three days.)

Who knows where she would have lived after my sister’s death. With my other sister? With me? In a nursing home? Impossible to say. None of those scenarios would have been ideal for her.

Every year when my mother’s birthday rolls around, I speculate about how different my life would be if she were still in it. I miss her. But the woman I miss and the 91 year old who would be here now are two very different people, no doubt.

Recently, I crossed the line to a place where I’ve lived more time without her than I did with her. That was a strange feeling. (If you still have your mom, stop what you’re doing, right now, and give her a hug. I mean it. Do it right now.)

If I had had children, they’d probably be in their late teens or twenties by now. I can’t imagine dealing with the typical rebelliousness, and anxiety over college costs, on top of worrying about a very elderly, and most likely very unhappy, mother. The mind boggles.

For those of you who are the meat in the sandwich generation, my hat is off to you.


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This is Who I Am

My whole life I’ve been told that old people tend to be set in their ways. People always sound sad when they say this. Poor old folks. They don’t know how to change. They can’t keep up. They’re stubborn and their minds are closed to new ideas. What a shame.

Naturally, the older I get and the more set in my ways I become, the more my perspective changes on this subject. I don’t see myself as recalcitrant. In fact, I love new ideas and new perspectives. But after decades of trial and error, I also know what works for me, and what doesn’t.

For example, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to look and act the way I thought people wanted me to. The result was that I was always uncomfortable and unhappy with the results. I’m not a girly girl. I never was. I never will be. I’m tired of trying to force myself into the shoebox that society wants me in. So from now on I dress for myself, not for anyone else. Don’t like it? Tough.

I also have a very strong sense of the types of people I want in my life. Decent, caring, reliable people. People who accept me for who I am. People who have outgrown the whole party animal mindset. People with integrity and a moral compass. And those people are usually fairly easy to spot. Am I being unfair to those whom I dismiss? Maybe. But as my expiration date draws ever nearer, I find I have much less time to waste on foolishness and drama.

So am I set in my ways? I prefer to call it comfortable in my own skin. Either way, this is who I am. Love it or don’t.


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Don’t You Know Me?

I had the most distressing phone conversation the other day. I try to call my favorite aunt, who is 85 years old and lives in Connecticut, about once every two weeks. Her health is not good. She’s in constant pain, but she has a killer sense of humor and her mind is sharp as a tack. She’s about the same age as my mother would have been if she had survived past her 60’s, so that means she has a special place in my heart for that reason as well.

I was expecting our usual chat. Cracking jokes, complaining about aches and pains, feisty gossip that for some reason she feels she can only share with me. Not this time. Maybe she was tired, maybe I caught her just as her pain medication was kicking in. I hope that was all it was. God, please let that be all it was.

Because the person I talked to did not know me at all. This person had my aunt’s voice and I’m assuming she had my aunt’s body, but it was like my aunt wasn’t there. She kept thinking I was my sister. She asked about a husband that I do not have. I said, “Aunt Betty, you know you’re talking to Barb, right?” She replied, “Oh! Sorry. I’m a little confused. So, have you heard from Barb?” “This is Barb.” “Oh, yeah… I love all the postcards Barb sends me.”

I don’t know which upset me more, the fact that she didn’t know me, or the fact that she wasn’t herself. This was not my hilarious, feisty aunt. This was a meek, confused person who seemed… well… old. It made me sad.

To be honest, I fear getting dementia much more than I fear death. To lose my memories, the only things in life that are uniquely mine, is a terrifying prospect. Losing myself and yet leaving my body behind is the stuff of nightmares.

This situation also reminded me of one of the last conversations I had with my mother. In the very end stages of her cancer she was pretty zonked on pain medication. She’d have good days and bad days. One day she seemed to be having a very good day, and I said as much. She said, “I am! My daughter Barb is meeting me for lunch!” When I hung up the phone, I burst into tears, because she was in Virginia and I was in Florida, so I knew I’d be standing her up. I sort of hoped her confusion was enough so that she wouldn’t remember to be disappointed. It’s hard when someone leaves you before their body does.

So I’ll call my aunt back in two weeks and hope for the best. But I’ll be scared. Whether she knows me or not, I’ll tell her I love her. Because everyone should know they’re loved, even if they don’t know by whom.

adult helping senior in hospital

[Image credit:]


Meeting Linda Mae

A few years ago, on a very cold winter night, I got home from work shortly after midnight and as I pulled into the driveway I saw a little old woman standing on the sidewalk in front of my house. She was barefoot, in her nightgown, standing with her feet wide apart, her arms at her sides, and her head tilted. As I got closer, she continued to stare vacantly at me, but she didn’t move and said not a word.

I confess I was a little creeped out. She kind of looked like a zombie. I had no way of knowing if she’d freak out and hurt herself or me. So I gave her a wide berth and went inside and got my boyfriend. We both went back outside and he said, “Ma’am, can I help you?” She looked at him and said, “Nnnnn….” We looked at each other. He said, “It sure is cold out here. Are you cold, ma’am? Why don’t you come on in and get warm, and I’ll fix you a nice cup of tea.”

He took her by the hand and helped her up the steps. We sat her down and wrapped her in blankets. She looked to be in her 90’s. We asked her for her name, and she told us it was Linda Mae. She didn’t know her last name or her address. As my boyfriend fixed her some tea, I called 911.

She began to look frightened, so my boyfriend knelt down beside her. “Miss Linda Mae,” he said, “We just called someone who’s going to come out and make sure you’re okay, and try to help us find out where you live, okay? Everything’s going to be fine. You found a safe place to be. We’ll take care of everything.”

It must have been a slow night for first responders, because the next thing we knew there were two ambulances and a police car out front, and no fewer than 7 very large men came in and surrounded Linda Mae. I could tell she was scared half to death, so I told her all these nice men were here to make sure she was okay. They checked her pulse and blood pressure, among other things, and declared that she was in good health. But now what to do about getting her home? She still didn’t know her last name or address. No one had called in a missing person.

It was about one in the morning by now, and the ambulances left, leaving us with one police officer. He went outside, and we tried to make small talk with Linda Mae, but that’s hard to do with someone who has no past or future. We asked her if she liked the tea and if she was warm enough now, but then topics of conversation kind of dried up.

Finally the officer came back in and said they found her address. He had dispatch do a search for any past records of someone named Linda wandering off, and sure enough it had happened twice before. She lived about 4 blocks away. Another officer went by her house to verify that they were missing someone, and the residents were surprised. They hadn’t even been aware that she was gone. So we bundled her into the police car and said goodbye, knowing she wouldn’t remember us in the morning.

I often think of Miss Linda Mae. I worry about her. I know it must be hard to care for someone with such severe dementia, but given her history of wandering, you’d think they’d have rigged the doors so that a bell would ring or something. Instead they slept peacefully on while she wandered a semi-dangerous neighborhood, shoeless, coatless, late at night in the dead of winter. She could have gotten hypothermia, wandered into traffic or even worse, stumbled upon people who would not have had her best interests at heart. My boyfriend says that it was meant to be that we found her when we did.

But the strangest part about it was realizing that an encounter that touched us so profoundly was completely lost on this woman within hours. It had slipped from her mind like sand through an hour glass. We had no form or substance for her, like a wisps of smoke, quickly disbursed. I can only hope that she is well and that her last days are safe and free of fear.

It also makes me wonder if I’ve ever impacted someone else without realizing it. As is the nature of things like that, I suppose I’ll never know.


(Image credit:

Make up a Holiday Day

Yesterday was International Women’s Day and I should have written about it. I’m a bad blogger. Bad! I really should stay on top of these things. These types of holidays are prime opportunities to create awareness about various topics. I’m sure I could have spoken in depth about the fact that 90 percent of the women I have known have either been the victim of physical, sexual or emotional abuse at least once in their lives, and how that tells you a great deal about the violent yet silent world in which we live. Or I could have spoken about women who have achieved greatness, and women who do great things every day and yet fly completely under the radar. I could have told you one of a million stories about my mother, who was pretty amazing in her own right. But noooooo…I missed it completely. Sorry ladies.

But there are so many things in the world that are unsung or ignored. Here are some holidays that should exist, and for all I know, do exist but have been overlooked by me. Feel free to add more in the comments section below!

celebratePicture credit:

  • International Cease Fire Day
  • Thanks for Doing the Dishes Day
  • Resist Road Rage Day
  • Make Waves Day
  • Expand Your Horizons Day
  • Give Shy People Some Space Day
  • International Day of Peace and Quiet
  • Make a Fool of Yourself Day
  • Work in Your Jammies Day
  • Think Outside the Box Day
  • Try New Food Day
  • Learn from Your Irritants Day
  • Foot Massage Day
  • Explore Another Religion Day
  • Sleep Late Day
  • Get Your Own Damned Coffee Day
  • Spoil Your Pet Day
  • No Electronics Day
  • Step Out of Your Comfort Zone Day
  • Stay in Your Comfort Zone and Make No Apologies Day
  • National Day of Nurturing
  • Jump in a Puddle Day
  • See the Sunrise Day
  • Hug a Perfect Stranger Day
  • Don’t Underestimate the Elderly Day
  • Cook a Meal for a Migrant Worker Day
  • Stop, Look, and Listen Day
  • Teach Someone Something Day
  • Learn Something New Day
  • Breakfast in Bed Day
  • Defy Gravity Day
  • Burp in Public Day
  • Don’t Spend Any Money Day
  • Compliment a Stranger Day
  • Focus on Yourself Day
  • Tip Extravagantly Day
  • Stay Home and Read a Book Day
  • International Appreciate a Blogger Day
  • Be Kind to Bridgetenders Day
  • Skinny Dipping Day
  • Change Your Mind Day
  • Day Trip Day

Don’t Underestimate the Elderly

My landlady is 72 years old, and only 4 months out from heart surgery, and yet the first time I saw her, she was wearing short shorts, a tank top, and a half ton of jewelry. I’m convinced she’s in better shape than I am.  I think she’s delightful.

Back in the 80’s, I used to work in this mom and pop video rental store. (This was before Blockbuster came along and wiped them off the map.) Every week this little old lady would come in and rent 10 porn videos.  I used to think, “You give me hope for the future.”

I recently graduated from college with an 80 year old man who was getting his 10th degree.

The pastor of my church, in his late 60’s, rode his bicycle across America this summer to raise money for charity.

My next door neighbor, may she rest in peace, lived alone until she was 95, and loved it. She rode her bike 30 miles a day until she was 80. She only stopped because she was afraid she’d fall and break a hip. So after that, she walked her dogs several miles a day.

I was talking to an 83 year old woman about her new boyfriend. She said, “But no sex, honey. He has prostate issues.” I just love her!

I know a man in his 80’s who makes stained glass, takes math classes just for the heck of it, is the world’s greatest cook and can touch his toes before I even start to bend over.

I work full time with 5 people in their 70’s.

Before I moved recently, I attended a yoga class with 50 people. The average age in there must have been 75, and they could all “downward dog” me under the table. It was kind of embarrassing, to tell the truth.

After being faced with so many examples of amazing elderly people, I have to ask myself, “Why do I continue to be amazed?” Why can’t I get that stereotypical image of the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” woman out of my head? Clearly that stereotype does them a disservice. Yes, there are plenty of elderly people out there with health problems or dementia or an inability to care for themselves. But can you imagine how frustrating it must be for the ones I’ve described above to be discounted, ignored, or otherwise treated like a three year old child? I resolve, from this day forward, to approach every elderly person as if they were amazing, because more often than not, they are. Who’s with me?