It Takes a Village

It takes a village, they say, to raise children, but it also takes a village to take care of old people. My grandmother just visited me here in Vienna for her 92nd birthday.

Dear Vienna: thank y’all for taking such good care of her!

The Viennese are extremely polite but they are not always what you might call nice. To tell the truth, they have a definite bitchy streak. Especially the waiters. But I threaten to digress. The point is, to old people, the Viennese are not only polite, but genuinely considerate. And this allows very elderly people to live pretty independently. The village takes care of them. For example:

Public transportation is everywhere, and nearly universally accessible. Special seats are reserved for the elderly. Tram and bus drivers watch to make sure old people are on board and sitting down before starting up. The second an old person gets on a tram, several people will offer him or her a seat. (And if they don’t, the old person will give them a piece of their mind, but that’s another story!)

If an old person is having trouble getting on or off a tram, other people help them down the stairs, help them with their shopping carts, etc. We took an older-model tram with my grandmother at one point, and she was having trouble getting up the steeper stairs. A big guy behind her simply pushed her straight up into the tram where we caught her. She was startled, but grateful!

Every museum we went to had wheelchairs available, and staff that went well out of their way to help us. My grandmother was escorted to elevators, helped  up and down stairs, and admitted free to a couple of places that did not even officially offer a senior discount. Best of all, nearly every museum offers an audio guide in English with volume control so it can be turned way up.

When we visited Stephansdom, of course we wanted to see the catacombs. It really wasn’t that difficult for her, as she handles stairs well, but other people on the tour were clearly concerned and pointed out bumps in the floor, helped her up stairs, and generally made sure she came out in the same condition she went in.

For a people that generally believe in keeping themselves to themselves, this was all remarkably friendly and outgoing behavior. Combine it with the excellent transportation infrastructure here, and a dense urban population with a grocery store and bakery on practically every block, and you’ve got a pretty darn good place to be old.

It made me think about public transportation in the States in a new light. Of course, I already think we should have lots of it for environmental reasons, but now I can see that it would be a major factor in allowing our aging population to successfully live independently for longer. It could be an important part of our village too. I sure hope we get our priorities in order before I get to age 92!

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