Several years ago, a friend of mine who was then the administrator of a senior living community in Maine, sent me a poem. It resonated with me then and it resonates with me now even more. That’s mostly because I’ve been traveling around Maine interviewing people 60 and older for my podcast Conversations About Aging.
I get to sit with people and find out what their lives have been like throughout the years and what they are like now. I ask questions like what makes it a good day? How do you wish people would treat you now that you’re older? Are you ever lonely? What wisdom can you share?
The answers have been poignant, inspiring, frustrating, sad, funny, thought-provoking. Among the things I’ve learned or have had reinforced is that you can’t ever take people’s feelings for granted. People I assumed were lonely told me they weren’t and people I thought weren’t lonely, sometimes were. For instance, several people who live in assisted living facilities where there are lots of other people and plenty of activities have told me they are often lonely for their children and grandchildren.
Back to the poem that my friend sent me. It was called The Crabby Old Man.
There are various versions of the poem that have been circulating for years along with stories about its origin. I did a little research and will share what I found, but first …
The Crabby Old Man
What do you see, nurses? What do you see?
What are you thinking when you’re looking at me?
A crabby old man … Not very wise,
Uncertain of habit … With faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food … And makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice … “I do wish you’d try!”
Who seems not to notice … The things that you do.
And forever is losing … A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not … Lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding … The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking? … Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse … You’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am … As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding … As I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten … With a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters … Who love one another.
A young boy of Sixteen … With wings on his feet.
Dreaming that soon … Now a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty … My heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows … That I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now … I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide … And a secure, happy home.
A man of Thirty … My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other … With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons … Have grown and are gone,
But my woman’s beside me … To see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more … Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children … My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me … My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … Shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing … Young of their own.
And I think of the years … And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man … And nature is cruel.
Tis jest to make old age … Look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles … Grace and vigor, depart.
There is now a stone … Where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass … A young guy still dwells,
And now and again … My battered heart swells.
I remember the joys … I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living … Life over again.
I think of the years, all too few … Gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact … That nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people … Open and see.
Not a crabby old man … Look closer … See ME!!
Supposed story behind the poem
This is the most widely circulated story:
When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in Grass Valley, CA, it was believed that he left nothing of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. It’s quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital. One nurse took her copy to Missouri. The old man’s sole bequest to posterity has since appeared in the Christmas edition of the News Magazine of the St. Louis Association for Mental Health. A slide presentation has also been made based on his simple, but eloquent poem. And this little old man, with nothing left to give the world, is now the author of this “anonymous” poem winging across the Internet. Remember this poem when you next meet an older person who you might brush aside without looking at the young soul within.
Other versions of poem and backstory
This poem and another from an elderly woman’s point of view have been circulating for about two decades, along with slightly different versions of its origin. The man has lived in a nursing home in California, Nebraska and Florida and the woman in the geriatric ward of a small hospital near Dundee, Scotland.
The real story
I did a little digging on the Internet back when I received the poem from my friend and discovered a website called the PalletMaster’s Workshop. On it was what I believe to be the original Crabby Old Man poem with a different title.
The site is no longer up and I was unable to find any updated information about the man who owned it. His name was David Griffith and he was from Fort Worth, Texas. His website bio had said that he was “a home-bound disabled person who has been writing and publishing poems and short stories since 1969.”
I tried to find out more about him and the real story behind the poem but was unable to contact him. I was disappointed but decided to go ahead and share his poem, called Too Soon Old.
Too Soon Old
What do you see, my friends, what do you see… what are you thinking when you’re looking at me? A crabby old man, one not very wise, uncertain of habit, with far away eyes. Who dribbles his food and makes no reply… when you say in a loud voice, “I wish you’d try?” Who seems not to notice the things that you do, and forever is losing a sock or a shoe. Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will… with bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking? Is that what you see? Then open your eyes my friends, you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still, as I live at your bidding, as I enjoy company at your will. I’m a small child of ten with a father and mother, brothers and sisters, who love one another.
A young boy of sixteen, a football in his hands and with wings on his feet, dreaming that soon now a lover he’ll meet.
A marine soon at eighteen — my heart gives a leap, remembering the oath that I promised to keep. At twenty-five now, I have a platoon of my own, ‘who need me to guide them and secure a trip home.
A man of thirty, my youth now going too fast, hopefully bound to others with ties that should last.
At fifty my daughter and sons have grown and are gone, and I have no one beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At sixty no more babies play around my knee, again I know heartbreak, my loneliness and me. Dark days are upon me, my dreams are all dead; I look at the future, I shudder with dread. For my young are all rearing young of their own, and I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man and nature is cruel; ’tis jest to make old age look like a fool. The body, it crumbles, grace and vigor depart, there is now a stone where I once had a heart. But inside this old carcass a young man still dwells, and now and again my battered heart swells. I remember the joys, I remember the pain, and I’m loving and living live over again.
I think of the years; all too few. Gone too fast, and accept the stark fact that nothing can last. So open your eyes, my friends, open and see, not a crabby old man; look closer — see ME!! (Copyrights Number 1-434-507-000)
By David Griffith
The message in either version is the same: “So open your eyes, my friends, open and see, not a crabby old man; look closer — see ME!!” The poems recognize the important issues of loneliness and isolation as well as depression among older people, which is often not recognized or treated.
First of all, depression is NOT a normal part of aging. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Emotional experiences of sadness, grief, response to loss, and temporary blue moods are normal. Persistent depression that interferes significantly with the ability to function is not.”
Staying physically, mentally, and socially active can help reduce the risk in older people, but anyone with symptoms of depression should be thoroughly checked out by a healthcare provider to determine the cause and best course of treatment.
Symptoms of depression
Depression in an older person may be hard to diagnose because many of the usual symptoms — fatigue, loss of appetite, and insomnia — are common as we age or have an illness. Be on the lookout for these signs as well:
- Decreased attention to hygiene
- Increased isolation
If someone you care about (at any age) shows any of the signs of depression, please, open your eyes and look closer.
Don’t wait for signs of depression to reach out and start a conversation with an older person.
- Everybody has a story to tell if someone would only ask.
- By listening, you become part of that person’s story. You become connected, which enriches their life and yours.
- By connecting, you have the power to change how society views and interacts with people who are getting older … or as my husband prefers to say, living longer.