We are living in a top-heavy society. There are 100 million people over age 50 in America; there are more people over 60 than under 15. This is an unprecedented demographic profile of a society.
Unprecedented, too, is our society's relationship to its grandparents. Older people often experience a kind of stigmatization (slow, sickly, forgetful, needy, useless) and discrimination that resembles racism or sexism. As Kate Lindemann, a scholar at the Center on Aging and Policy in Newburgh, put it: “Elders are like the Blacks of the 50s and women of the 60s.”
This story was born of an interest in elders – what is an elder, exactly, and how to become one? – but it soon became clear that talking about elders without talking about ageism is like trying to talk about good food without mentioning GMOs or agribusiness or additives.
The stereotypes start out seeming innocuous enough (exhibit A: those drug store birthday cards), but our language betrays our attitudes. Several times as I was writing this story I caught myself making lame jokes about “forgetting,” or “all of us white-hairs.” Ageism is out there in the air and it's hard not to breathe it in. As we look at the opportunities in ageing and the roles for elders, we have to keep in mind the lurking stereotypes of old people and the places those preconceptions come from.
Young, old, we as a culture have bought into what gerontologist William Thomas has dubbed the Cult of Adulthood, where the activities of the middle age adult life stage are held up as the standard for all life stages. When this happens, childhood is diminished and elderhood is devalued. In What Are Old People For, Thomas talks about children and elders as skilled in the being in the world, whereas adults are focused on the doing in the world.
Mid-adult life is about acquiring: mate, family, career, resources. Later life is about reviewing, adjusting, shedding, listening and repair. This usually tends to happen “off the clock.” Being off the clock is a space that older people share with teens and kids, and it has a rhythm all its own, in which time is not as conveniently measured in hours or days or items crossed off the to-do list.
But that does not mean uselessness. It's when other parts of life get their time. There are many different “realms” of being an elder. There are elders who are with youth, involved in public service or spiritual matters. Many are family caretakers. Some work on novels, paintings sculptures as a way of exploring and learning more about themselves. There are about 15 million older off-the-clock volunteers in America. There are lots of different ways to finish that Third Age. An elder usually is someone who is sought for spiritual and cultural leadership and who has knowledge of some aspect of tradition.” Writer Andy Fisher offers this: “They give themselves away, learn to dwell in timelessness, tend the youth.”
Elders, as most every other culture understands, are not just worn out adults. Older adults have the same needs as all people for experience of joy, wonder and awe; they need contact with Nature and the experience of risk and danger that offers; they need to grow and learn new skills and ways of making things and finally like all of us they need times and places to share their life stories--not just memories, but the stories of how they are making their way through life, now. What sets them apart is the experience they've had, which offers a perspective they can bring to others.
Let's hear from our elders. PORTRAIT: EMILY BOARDMAN
“As we age, things change. First, they open up. We are less identified with the “I” in the world and can better see the “we”. We are all a part of the same world a world of extraordinary wonder, the connection is more apparent. Secondly it's easier to give up things be they resentments, hurts, old ways or objects. This is not sacrifice, but a freedom and release. It allows a way of joining with others by just being, free of assumption and expectations. This is the elder as lighthouse, as bridge for other people into long deferred parts of themselves/ourselves. A generosity with and respect for the journey is possible with the hindsight of aging. It is no wonder that elders have been the guides.”
Emily Boardman, 68PULL QUOTE (no portrait): “We live in a culture that so fiercely denies aging, that for most of us there are really no traditional “elders” in the old sense. In my 30 years of nature study and teaching I've come to know the Earth and Nature as the guiding elder. Children make this connection easily with their openness and bring great insight back to the older people. Quiet, and also social, contact with the earth, water, air, plants, rocks and animals offers a powerful, non-verbal way to recover elder wisdom. It teaches us deeply about time, cycles, interrelationships, and place.
- Laurie Seeman, 55PORTRAIT: BEVERLY BRAXTON
My elderhood is allowing me to deepen my life-long calling as an advocate for the wellbeing of children. I've recently launched Family Central, a project to support families and children in dealing with the increasing pressures of today's culture. My vantage point as an elder gives me the confidence and perspective to create opportunities to help raise awareness and reduce isolation of parents by sharing information and resources via parenting workshops and meet-ups for families. We elders, with our time and experience, can help develop the leadership needed for this. If “family” is a part of your elder service, I invite more elders to support the next generation of parents and children. Please contact Beverly Braxton about Family Central at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Beverly Braxton, 67PORTRAIT: JANE HAMBURGER
When Art Linkletter was asked about the inevitability of becoming old and grouchy, he said that grouchy old folks used to be grouchy young folks. Attitude--your own and those with whom you surround yourself--greatly affect how you look at life and your success rate as you adjust and adapt to what you can decreasingly, physically accomplish, as one ages. I have always been grateful to be associated with children (“tend the youth”). They keep your attitude fresh, and the days never repeat themselves.
- Jane Hamburger, 72 PORTRAIT: GEOFF HOWARD
In my 70's, I find myself better able to integrate the pieces — people, priorities, “politics,” practicalities. I find I can accept imperfect solutions better than I used to. I'm sometimes impatient with people, usually younger, who are purists, who see gray or compromise as heresy, who would rather have virtuous defeat than partial victory. Also — 2 more P words — patience and perspective: the sky probably won't fall and we'll probably muddle through — although that's linked to a belief that I have something to contribute to the muddling process. My interests are increasingly local — family and community. Saving the world for democracy doesn't interest me. I want to get the weeds out of my small garden and help repair a small corners of the community. “ Geoffrey Howard, 71
PORTRAIT: GEORGE SHARP “I'm off the clock now and have the time to remember where I really am. I enjoy finding out things especially discovering those pathways between the Thinking Mind and the Spirit Heart. Everybody should have a shop. Handwork is really practice in seeing, really seeing.”
– George Sharp, 81QUESTIONS To help get to know your Third-Age self:
What are your skills and abilities? What are your interests?
What are you doing, making, building, creating?
When and how do you feel recognized? Valued?
What practical needs do you have: Paid Work? Transportation?
What is your contact with Nature? When and how do you play?
In what ways are you learning, growing?
How are you in touch with your body?
What repair work are you doing, on deferred plans, dreams, skills, relationships?
What balance are you looking for? More of what? Less of what?
What are you “shedding,” adjusting, updating?
What are you aware of now that you were not before?
What concerns or issues are nagging you?
Do you have a sense of leaving some legacy?
AN ELDER'S PLEDGE Older Americans' Pledge Orrin R. Onken
We will not be judged by the values of youth.
We will not be expelled from work or play.
We will not equate aging with illness.
We will not be subject matter for experts.
We will not be the objects of condescension.
We will not be defined as a social or economic problem.
We will not be trivialized.
We will not be docile. We will not be interned.
We will grow and learn. We will maintain a sense of humor.
We will support one another. We will cooperate across generations to create a better world.
We will nurture and guide the young.
We will contribute according to our abilities.
WE WILL BE PROUD.