May 1, 2017Elderhostile
There are many cultures where elders are still revered, but in our own (American) we seem to regard them mostly as people who are either sick or about to be sick; that is, they are on the verge of succumbing to all manner of things from dementia to bad falls with, of course, a whole host of diseases somewhere in the middle of all that. In other words, they are a problem.
Our hostels for the elderly are presented to us with flowery visuals and flowery prose – gourmet meals! games! entertainment! yoga! dancing! sky diving! (I actually saw that one in an ad for a senior rest home) – as though moving to Peonies In The Pines was quite akin to going to summer camp. Hey! They even have Health Care facilities (read: Hospice). Essentially, before we bury our elders in the ground we bury them in euphemisms.
Along with all of that we also tend to infantilize them: soft foods (lime Jell-O), tapioca pudding, adult diapers, tricycles, large-print books, visiting nannies, food deliveries, and a growing arsenal of technology to track their every move.
What bothers me most about the above is not that all of it is bad but, rather, how we characterize any group of people has a huge impact on one important thing: our expectations. Basically, we expect nothing of them. Trusting such people then, depending on them for much of anything, would seem out of the question.
And therein lies the problem.
That funky group of wrinkled souls represents a deep well of wisdom. Unfortunately, certain stereotypes get in the way. We conjure images of some stately graybeard (male or female, beard optional) sitting under a tree spouting great gouts of wise nostrums. Our enduring moral questions? Got it. The meaning of life? No problem. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, is there sound? I’m on it. Does God exist? Is there an afterlife? Here’s what you need to know.
Over time, though, that stereotype gets elevated to the status of icon, and then begins to seem silly. Our elders don’t really have the answers to those puffy questions so why should we take these frail creatures seriously?
Maybe the problem isn’t them, but us. In conjuring up, and then dismissing, that stereotype, perhaps we lose sight of what “wisdom” might actually mean. Those folks, after all, both collectively and individually, have deep experience in navigating not the grand questions of the philosophers, but the smaller – yet hugely important – problems most of us face every day.
How were you able to buy your first house? What did you do about health insurance? Are annuities a good buy? Do you think your grandkids really need college? Should I buy a new car often or keep one for a lot of years? Are politicians any different today from those you’ve lived with all these years? Is it better to live in a city or a small town? Is it good or bad to go into debt? Do you think the Bears will ever be winners again? Should people really enter marriage thinking it will last forever? Was sex all you thought it would be? Did you have many friends? Were you happy in your jobs? Have you found your life to be interesting?
There are, of course, many more questions like that, most of which we ultimately answer in our own stumbling-along fashion, and for many either there are no longer any accessible elders to whom we could pose those questions, or else those we might have do, indeed, fit the above picture of being too frail, too sick, or possibly demented to be of any help.
It’s important, though, not to dismiss this cadre, more than anything to assume that their world was not like ours, that we have computers and touch screens and they didn’t, that we’ve had a hard time finding a job and they didn’t, that our world is filled with danger and terror and theirs wasn’t, that it’s really tough raising kids these days and it wasn’t for them, that our money never goes far enough and theirs always did, that our leaders are mean and insensitive and theirs were kind and noble, that we’re always busy and they weren’t.
I try not to be too prescriptive in Cold Iron because these days that’s a good way to lose friends. So I’m not about to tell you to go and lasso some seniors and terrify them with a bunch of questions, not even your parents or your grandparents. But it has been said often that we are a throwaway culture and it seems sadly ironic that we so often throw those folks away without recycling some of those practical truths.
I doubt they’ve even heard of alternative facts.
G.K. Wuori © 2017
Photoillustration by the author