When we grow old, many people believe it’s pretty much over—the glamour disappears, our physical strength declines, our minds weaken, finding a mate seems futile and various parts of our body begin to fall apart. We’ve conditioned ourselves that the process of aging is the process of decay. A dreadful prospect since that’s the future for us all. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be relegated to a human junk heap somewhere in another decade. Still, that’s the mindset most Americans have today.
I have a totally different philosophy. I happen to adore old people. Old people and very young children. Both are incredibly honest; they don’t care what others think and often say whatever’s on their mind. I find that refreshing, frankly. These extremes in age are the most fascinating, entertaining, and wise.
With babies, their wisdom comes from the intuition they brought with them—the wisdom that hasn’t yet been stifled. They love all other babies, small animals and select people; they know how to judge those if you notice. With elders, their wisdom is a learned skill, which can only be achieved over time. I adore both groups; it’s the people in the middle I routinely question.
So, for the purpose of this blog, we’ll focus on the aging population, and how Americans could learn much from how that group is treated by others. Let’s start, however with why this population is, by far, my favorite. Although I adore babies, I’d much prefer to spend extended amounts of time with the elderly. Perhaps evident by the time I’ve spent in my life being drawn to much older women—all of whom were well into their 90's— and the budding friendships that ensued.
One such woman was my Aunt Minnie, who faced dementia in her later years.
Aunt Minnie was a firecracker and remained a delight. Another was my former mother-in-law, Betty Cowen, who I reconnected with even after I divorced her son. She eventually passed but was classy and a bit of a Pollyanna while she lived; it was charming to experience.
Other older women who greatly influenced me or in whom I found inspiration were another former mother-in-law and of course, my biological mother, Sally Aslakson, whom I met later in life. She was an example of strength, being capable and being a lifelong leader—even though she lived in a very small town in Minnesota. My adopted grandmother Brandy, an immigrant Polish woman who called me “her little chicken” was another and finally, Gladys Taylor McGarey, MD, who today is still living at 101. She’s writing her 8th book and still speaks to groups. She’s inspirational to everyone.
Even though I loved my adopted mother immensely, she died much too young to qualify for this group but from the others I have learned much as their ages advanced— rarely through dialogue but by observing, listening to and loving them. Perhaps it’s because I recognized their wisdom and respected each one—even if a few weren’t particularly book-smart. The great thing about seniors as they age is that their authenticity is revealed, and that in and of itself is refreshing to be around. No false pretenses, no need to prove anything but instead, grateful souls who know how to appreciate when they’re loved. When they flash a smile that recognizes that fact, it speaks volumes.
Our society has it all wrong and seems to forget people on both ends of life’s journey. When adults age, we warehouse and ignore them; many end up socially isolated. What a loss. We should, instead, try to include them more into the family unit— in a meaningful way. Here are a few examples of how other civilizations and cultures revere these treasures. You’ll also find those societies have fewer suicide attempts, less depression and addiction as well as other curses to their population as we too readily accept. Perhaps it is because they do include a little active wisdom in the mix!
The Chinese, for example, not the Communist Chinese element of the population—with their horrific mandates that regulate family size and gender preference—but, rather, the enlightened Chinese and Chinese American families who brought the best of their ancient cultures into their homes. The Chinese honor their elders and in terms develop better judgment themselves.
The Greeks, perhaps the greatest philosophers in ancient civilizations, have always considered old age something to be honored and celebrated. Our Native Americans, who historically passed down knowledge with storytelling and the healing arts through apprenticeships—all originating with their elders—also benefitted. The very savvy Eastern Indians who are brilliant in the field of technology live a lifestyle that elevates their aging population, too, so elders remain the head of their families for as long as they live. Those who lived in Ancient Rome, considered those of greater years a precious resource, and finally Koreans, perhaps influenced by their Confucianism roots, also honor those in advanced years with big celebrations that continue to grow in size the older they get! I could probably continue, but you get the idea.
Then, there’s us. We write off our senior citizens to eventual dementia or Alzheimer’s and fight among our siblings to see who draws the short straw to take care of the parents or grandparents, As obligated or bound by duty, we make the perfunctory phone call or text on Mother’s Day, Birthdays and Holidays. We consider ourselves lucky when we live out of town and don’t have to deal with routine events but just a holiday here or there, and of course funerals.
It would be so much better if western civilization woke up and realized that once a person is old enough to reflect on a few decades—they can become wise enough to understand. Not before.
We mistake being smart or having knowledge on a subject for being wise. Those gifts are totally different. As the very popular saying goes, smart knows that tomato is a fruit but wisdom keeps us from adding it to a fruit salad.
Only through life and experience does one gain wisdom. Our elders may not be smarter than us, but they sure as the devil are wiser. Only with the wisdom they possess does everything in life finally become clear. It’s that clarity we all seek and it’s that clarity that brings total peace. Most of them now have it and are content.
Anyway, when we need clarity, when we need to regain perspective, when we could stand a gentle smile or a nod of approval—run, don’t walk, to the people in our lives who truly know. They don’t have to be a relative—they can be a neighbor or friend. You can tell who they are by the age on their face, the instant gratitude when they see a visitor and the smile you’ll receive simply by caring enough to ask them a few questions.
Our seniors are the one resource America has never ravaged. Instead, it’s the one resource it has ignored. Let’s help change that.