Why Old People Matter
Carol Osborne tells you why!
BY: Carol Orsborn, Ph.D
You don’t have to look very far to find somebody or other bashing the Boomer generation. Politicians refer to us as a burden to society. Younger generations accuse us of being selfish. Historians reserve their praise for the cohort that preceded us (“The Greatest Generation”) and their greatest hope for the generations that follow. When it comes to Medicare and Social Security, even the use of the word “entitlement” bears negative connotations, implying that our generation is gobbling up communal resources that we neither earned nor deserve.
Here’s the thing. You also don’t have to look very deep to discover the bedrock upon which such harsh critiques reside: garden variety ageism. The rhetoric may be fresh, but the stereotypes of aging are mundane. Our youth-centric society reviles the aged, reducing all that is holy and productive to four simple words: “Young=good; old=bad.” Dare to venture to the other side of midlife while refusing to become invisible or marginalized, and you will be branded as greedy and selfish. unpatriotic.
At this point, it’s tempting for a social scientist like me to go into the history of ageism in modern society, starting with the lethal conflation of ageism and sexism that resulted in the Salem witch trials. But let’s not get bogged down in the how’s and why’s and cut to the chase. Despite the stereotypes, old people matter. In point of fact, the purpose of old age is manifold. Let’s begin with an illustrative story. In the 1950’s, anthropologist Margaret Mead delivered a memorable lecture that centered on the role of the postmenopausal red-tailed deer to the herd. From the outside, these old does appeared to have no value. It would be natural to think of the elderly who hadn’t yet died off as burdens to the herd. But this was not the case. Mead goes on.
“In time of drought, these old does could remember where once, long ago, under similar circumstances, water sources had been found. When spring came late, they recalled sunny slopes where the snows melted early. They knew how to find shelter, places where blizzards could be waited out. Under such circumstances, they took over the leadership of the herd.”
Mead’s story goes straight to the heart of the question at hand, standing in stark contrast to our own society’s disrespect for aging. For just as the old does knew where to find sunlight, who amongst us does not know more now than we did five, ten or more years ago? We have knowledge and wisdom to share with others, inner reserves of resources upon which to call that are often dismissed too readily by those who would benefit the most.
The leading-edge Boomers I know are crossing the transom beyond midlife with the resources, energy and desire to give back. We feel the pull of legacy, the promise of purpose and what psychologist Erik Erikson called the passion for “generativity.” Many of us have the time and resources to volunteer, to mentor and to make a difference.
As part of this, we feel a tug at our hearts to develop qualities and potentials in ourselves we were previously too busy to attend to. We become better listeners. We can take a step back to see the bigger picture. We can stop and enjoy the moment, reminding ourselves and others what life is all about in the first place. That we have the potential to succeed at this is embedded in the world religions. Religious and spiritual teachings from East and West abound with old sages, wise elders and seasoned judges.
Politicians, marketers, historians, fellow citizens: when it comes to replacing outdated stereotypes with something closer to the truth—something that recognizes that aging has both inherent and potential value—it is easier to bash than it is to build.. All I ask now is that we at the very least entertain the notion that old people matter. And for those of us who are committed to replacing the outdated stereotypes with evidence of the greater truth, to consider the possibility that this is an exciting time, indeed, to be growing old.
Carol Orsborn, Ph.D. is Founder of FierceWithAge, the Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality. Dr. Orsborn, who earned her doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University, is the best-selling author of 21 books including her newest book: Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn. (Spring 2013) Dr. Orsborn is a sought after speaker/retreat leader and spiritual director.