Older adults make up an easily identifiable and distinct part of the U.S. population. Why do we lack an established lexical etiquette for discussing them?
Surveys by the Good Samaritan Society and other senior care organizations consistently reveal that seniors don’t want to be called seniors. What’s a better term: Elder? Silver fox? Cougar? While organizations such as ours strive to lift up and acknowledge the value of aging, popular culture overwhelms with its active inability to coherently discuss and accept this natural process.
Aging, in fact, has become slightly taboo. Does that not seem a rather serious dysfunction for a civilized people? Is it not also another barrier that can keep older adults out of sight, out of mind?
For those of us still en route to old age, what does it teach? In pretending aging can be avoided, one message is that there will always be time to do everything later. But our time is finite, and while reality can be ignored, the consequences of ignoring it cannot be. Each of us was born with an expiration date and reality is serious about settling that score. Sadly, Dr. Oz cannot help here. Stronger medicine is required.
A staple of many jettisoned traditional cultures is reverence for elders. Such reverence was not given for its own sake, but was rather part of the larger notion of sharing and being open to having wisdom shared with you. Sharing boils down to seeing in others the divinity you know to be in yourself. It is the opposite of living in an endless superego panic of aging-terror.
Modern civilization shares with great contradiction. We talk better than we listen. We give education to our children and aid to our seniors, but expect both to pay dearly for it. Our management of rural and urban spaces, the way we distribute wealth and information, and increasingly the way we socialize, are all areas of sharing best described as unbalanced. In environmental stewardship, the verdict would be far less generous.
Avoidance is critical to quieting this dissonance as it relates to the most vulnerable in our society: older adults, children and the natural world. So is distraction. Technological progress promises the infinity of Faust on this plane, and the mind’s eye can see it, so everything appears possible. But this all-too-human dream ignores the fact that nature works in cycles and has limits, and that we are part of nature, not vice versa. In our haste for grandiosity, we risk sacrificing stability and wisdom for a temporary and fragile reach that cannot last. Worst of all, we dare not think of what this will leave to future generations.
Our broader notions of sharing and our individual acceptances of cycles and limits have everything to do with our collective attitude toward aging and our inability to discuss it without fear, sarcasm or cynicism. Peace, balance and an organic reverence for each other can only come with drastic changes to this outlook, and the contemporary lifestyle that enables it.
These changes will come, either incrementally through individual examination of our own lives so that we can better align them to cycles and limits, or by nature imposing alignment upon us.
By Jay Bethke