Growing Older

A friend of ours will soon turn 50. We’ve known each other for years, and he will be having a party to celebrate. When my father turned 50, he let us all know he was half a century old. That seemed old at the time, but Dad didn’t really seem that much different than what he was when he wasn’t yet that age. When are people actually “old”? That probably differs from person to person, and from era to era, but something changes in the way you feel in the world when people perceive you as old.

In a capitalist culture where what’s new on the market drives people’s perception of what is “cool” and worth noting, old things are generally considered passé–out. People change their Facebook profile pictures sometimes daily. The new computer or phone model comes out and people discard the old one. The average American, for example, replaces his or her cell phone every 22 months, according to Scientific American. Following along with this mindset, Mother Nature Network reports that “[t]he U.S. produced 11 million tons of e-waste in 2012.” It’s expected to grow 33% by 2017.  Maybe the capitalist consumer perspective affects the way we look at old people and causes them to be seen similarly to old products. They aren’t “cool” anymore, and are put on the back burner or are tossed out, even though they still might have much to offer–and though throwing them out, so to speak, creates toxicity in the way we relate to each other.

Researcher on aging and consumption patterns, Michelle Barnhart from Oregon State University says on the University’s News and Research Communications site “Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued.” This may account for why our thinking about older people is mostly negative, she suggests.

The general public’s thinking about old people is erroneous. Why should it be true that if you’re old, you’re obsolete as well–that your ideas and ways of thinking, perhaps even your being, doesn’t quite count for as much? As democratic societies, we say we value human rights, but how do we demonstrate the value of what older people give to society? The Guardian describes a study by the Royal Volunteer Society in the UK in 2011, and notes that older people are in fact an asset, not a drain to society. “Taking together the tax payments, spending power, caring responsibilities and volunteering effort of people aged 65-plus, it calculates that they contribute almost £40bn more to the UK economy than they receive in state pensions, welfare and health services.” In an effort to make visible the positive and tangible impact of the caring and volunteering that elderly people do, the study goes on to say that the “calculations on the net contribution of older people have been made by economic analysts SQW. It estimates that older people benefit the economy to a total of £175.9bn, including delivering social care worth £34bn and volunteering worth at least £10bn, compared to welfare costs of £136.3bn.” This is a considerable influence in monetary terms, even more so in human terms. Instead of fading away into irrelevance upon old age, the elderly make significant contributions to society–contributions that are not necessarily recognized.

Additionally, contrary to the cranky, negative stereotype many have of older people, elderly people are actually more adept than younger people in social emotional skills according to Helen Fields, in her article “What’s So Good About Growing Old” on the Smithsonian magazine’s site. Fields explains that, “Subjects in their 60s were better than younger ones at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions and suggesting compromises.” It takes decades to learn how to manage social skills, Fields asserts, and older people are on the whole actually happier than younger people. Psychologist Laura Carstensen, at Stanford “led a study that followed people ages 18 to 94 for a decade and found that they got happier and their emotions bounced around less.” There is a stereotype that persists regarding older people, says Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer, “and that stereotype is typically incorrect.”

Forgetfulness is something often associated with old age–forgetting the name of an author you read some time back, or the name of the book, the name of a co-worker, or a place visited. Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness” describes a number of these incidents, and how little by little, the numbers, figures and names depart,

“as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

I love the way Collins’s poem brings us to a new view of forgetfulness–

“No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.”

In fact, some new research emerging might change the way we understand aging and the mind as well. NY Times blogger Benedict Carey, in a recent post, “The Older Mind is a Fuller Mind”, quotes the lead author of recent research about memory and aging, Michael Ramscar from the University of Tübingen in Germany, that puts into question how steep the age-related decline for cognitive processing is, as well as bringing into question some of the research measures cognitive scientists have used. According to this study, “the larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word (or pair).” The amount of information in long-term memory might be affecting the retrieval of short-term memory. “It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much,” suggests Carey.

Quite a few years back when my husband and I first began living overseas, we used to often spend the evening with an older couple we worked with at a school in Turkey. They were probably 25 or more years older than us, but we loved being with them. They would share the unique foods they scoured the markets to find. We’d share stories, and laugh with them for hours. We traveled with them as well, driving up the Turkish coast to visit Troy, and then on up to Alexandropolis in northern Greece—the area where the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey is traditionally believed to have lived. This older couple inspired us in our journey of reaching out to understand and explore other cultures, to step inside history, and to connect to it anew. They had a deep love for the culture we were living in, had returned to live in it a second time, and helped us to love it in all its variety and uniqueness. The role this older couple played in our lives was an important one, influencing the direction we moved into with our lives, and I am very glad for that friendship and its lasting effect on who we have become.

Old age might, for some, be seen like a foreign country, with different reference points and ways of living, thinking, and being. When we encounter older people, do we really see them? Do we notice them and allow ourselves to know them, and to learn from their perspectives? Age and death will surely come some day. How are we living now that will enable us to be the person we want to be when our own end comes? This is a question Joan Chittister explores in her book The Gift of Years. The pain of the wrongs that occurred when we were young is the thing older people must come to terms with, she says in the YouTubes, part 1 and part 2 about the ideas she presented in her book. We must go down into the innermost part of ourselves and learn how to find peace, she explains. Old age is the time to look at ourselves in the light, and come eye to eye with the mirror of who we are. “If we’ve been dishonest,” Chittister asks, “can we face the truth of ourselves? Can we see ourselves as the small part of the universe that we truly are, rather than the center? Can we speak our truths without having to be right?” Chittister says life isn’t about age. “It’s about aging well and living in to the gifts offered in every stage of life.” We all must come to terms with growing old. More than that, we can use our life to learn how to live well between whatever age we are, and whatever age it is when we realize, that “yes,” we are old now. Is it because it is hard to look closely at our interior selves that our culture has difficulty appreciating old age or valuing those who are older? The end time of life, Chittister says, is the time to “put down the remnants of the past and to learn from the present moment, and find it enough. It is the time to live with life as it is, and find it, too, is enough, to live with ourselves as we are and find it enough.” This is challenging, but something that seems worth doing at any age. Noticing, listening to, and cultivating friendships with older people seems a wise thing to do to set us on that path.

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