Too often in Western culture, our senior citizens are marginalized or ignored. It would benefit us to look to other cultures such as the Greeks, Koreans and Native Americans, who revere their elders for their wisdom and seek out their advice. Certainly these sage members of our society have a great deal to offer us, whether they are discussing parenting, leaving the past behind or following one’s dreams.
We tend to view someone who is over 65 as “old,” and in our culture that can mean being sidelined at work, disrespected on a daily basis or generally ignored by family and society. Unlike much of the rest of the world, we don’t always view the experience and accumulated knowledge of those who have come before us as something to be treasured and sought out.
These attitudes can affect the way seniors view themselves and negatively impact their lives, and ultimately, their overall well-being. People feel that the are losing value as they age and even feel ashamed about what is a natural process. They start to accept loneliness as their norm and stop seeking connection with their communities, which also takes a toll on their mental and physical health.
One way to combat this is to understand that we can shore up seniors’ sense of self-worth through kindness, interaction and creation of intergenerational programs. Including them in community gatherings and church and school activities can help them fare better on memory tests, lead to fewer falls and promote physical health. They are untapped resources for professional advice and experience as well.
In other cultures, respect and even reverence of older members of a family is a given. In Japan there is even a “Respect for the Aged Day” and many generations of one family often live under one roof, caring for and learning from one another. In China, these family bonds are so strong that parents can sue their children for emotional and financial support. Scotland has enacted a public program that works to change the focus of treatment from current illness to preventative care to encourage the health of older citizens.
Additionally, in Greece, old age is celebrated and reverence for elders is central to family life. Older people are thought to be wise and therefore closer to God. Native Americans are taught not to fear death, which runs contrary to most Western attitudes about the end of life, and pass crucial knowledge and history down from one generation to the next.
Other global examples of these differences are the special celebrations Koreans have for 60th and 70th birthdays, to mark passing into old age as amazing and special. In India, elders have the last word in family decisions and are often sought out for advice. In African-American culture, funerals are far from somber; rather, they are celebrations of life and the passage from one phase to the next.
End-of-life care, too, is different from culture to culture. Some view the elderly as a burden and a drain on resources, while others focus on spirituality and promoting longevity. Most Western cultures believe in caring for our elderly and sick. However, we don’t always want to face what mortality means, or value what the aged have to offer us even when they are ill.
If we take inspiration from the way others treat the older members of their societies, perhaps we can be more open to the advice they have to give. Many of them just want to be heard, to feel valued and to have the ability to share the knowledge and wisdom gained from living a long time and making it through life’s ups and downs.
Older people have stories to tell, and if you are willing to listen, you can receive priceless advice on a variety of subjects, like parenting. Focus on reading with your kids, seniors say. And hug them — a lot. Most of all, teach them to be ready for the real world by learning practical skills that are offered. And always remember that you are trying to raise a happy adult, which may not always mean a happy child.
Older Americans also advise not holding onto grudges or the past — i.e., not wishing you could go back and do things over, even knowing what you know now. They understand that they can appreciate the peace and reflection of their later years, while still creating new memories and spending time with friends and loved ones and making the most of each day.
Speaking with these men and women can also show that there is much more to summing up a life than whether it was a “success” or “failure” and that there are many moments and experiences that create a whole. Love, family, connection, meaningful work and dealing with the end of life in a healthy way — these themes all recur and are part of our social need as humans to create shared experience.
In interviews with older family members for the StoryCorps project, one woman advised her granddaughter to remember that hard times are like bad weather, they will pass. Another talked about finding work that sustains you both for the salary and the people you work with. Finding mentors, making do with what you have and being open to the inspiration that might be found in unexpected places were also put forth as essential to living meaningfully.
The New York Times recently followed a number of city residents over 85 over the course of a year to find out what life is like for people of that age. Those included in the piece often discussed letting go of anger and stress and having a greater sense of well-being. The article states there are studies showing that older can actually be wiser — that while brain function might slow, sound decision-making is still possible.
The decisions of the elderly can be based on experience or patterns or with a better understanding of the outcome of their actions. People also hold on to wisdom as a concept — meaning they believe they have it and that it helps to sustain them as their physical lives become more limited. It also helps to have a positive attitude. Those who view aging positively tend to live longer than those who focus on the negative aspects of growing older.
Ultimately, respecting our elders and learning life lessons from them may be about trying to bring some of their peace and advice into our everyday lives. As we rush around, preoccupied, we could simply take a moment to speak to someone older with a bit more kindness, to ask our elderly neighbors how they are doing and to finally interview that older family member we know has had an interesting life. They have a lot to offer — we just have to know how to listen.