"Could you help me with something? I can't work the elevator to the Wellness Center."
One of my neighbors said this to me at the end of the floor meeting last week. Can't work the elevator? I had no idea what that might mean, but saying "yes" to the request for help was one of those "good neighbor" things I could do at almost no cost to myself. (Counting cost kind of takes away from the virtue points, I know, but the neighbor would get the help she asked for, whether my personal halo got polished or not, so what the heck.) Plus I wanted to know why she couldn't work the elevator.
My neighbor, Rita, only recently moved in here from a small town on the Oregon coast. She uses a walker and has just enough Dutch accent to make her speech pleasantly non-standard. Her mind is lively and bright, generally cheerful, and she is not someone who can't work an elevator. We agreed to meet and walk to the Wellness Center.
I expected to have to slow my pace in deference to her walker, but either I didn't, or her conversation was so pleasantly distracting that I didn't notice the pace as we took the elevator from the sixth to the second floor ("This one doesn't give me problems," she told me), then walked along the corridor and across the skybridge to the elevators that give access to the Wellness Center.
"This is the one", she said, with a tone of fear in her voice that I had not heard before. The elevator doors swung open, and she explained, "See? It's too big." I still thought I was dealing with a psychological crink of some kind until she hesitantly pushed the walker onto the elevator.
Then I understood. There was only one handrail in the elevator car, at the back of the car, and the buttons for the different floors were on the other side. She couldn't reach them without letting go of the handrail and pushing the walker or walking unsupported across the elevator floor. "Wait, let me do it," she said. Bravely, she let go of the handrail, switched hands so that one was on the walker, reached across the elevator car and pushed the button for the Wellness Center floor. "OK, I'm OK now, I've done it, I know how to do it," she said, smiling broadly. (Rita has a great smile.)
To me, the elevator was spacious. To her, it had been an unknown space too wide for her to reach the buttons without losing stability. I don't (yet) have problems with falling. She knows in her bones that she can fall without support, and an obstacle as small as six feet of elevator floor between a handrail and the floor buttons is a serious challenge.
It's easy to dismiss other people's problems as trivial or self-indulgent. I'm sure there are people who prefer to whine about things instead of just getting on with it. But Rita is not one. Walking a mile with her behind her walker has opened up my view of the world.