A number of readers of my previous blog post, "The Real Fountain of Youth: Being a Grandparent," commented on the importance of treating the elder members of our society with greater honor and respect. In the same vein, others emphasized that rather than spending our time and money thinking about how to look and act younger, perhaps those of us in the post-50 generation ought to be giving more thought to sharing with younger people whatever knowledge and wisdom we've attained.
These comments reminded me of my trip to Brazil a few months ago, where I had the great opportunity of visiting my Brazilian relatives, Abram and Bela, who live at the hub of cosmopolitan São Paulo and are thriving within their country's dynamic and booming economy. They, as well as their two married children and four grandchildren, all reside in this vibrant metropolis within short driving distances of one another.
During a visit to one of the young couples' homes, I was touched to see two of the cousins --boys, ages 5 and 4 -- playing with one another like brothers, and all of the children interacting with their uncles, aunts and grandparents as easily as with their parents. How wonderful, I thought, that these kids have so many loving adults with whom they can interact on a regular basis. My visit was all-too brief, yet it seemed immediately apparent to me that this is how families are supposed to live -- in close proximity and connection to one another.
Having raised my own children hundreds of miles from their grandparents -- as well as from their aunts, uncles and cousins, who are scattered in cities throughout the United States -- I couldn't help but feel that we had all missed out somehow. My parents, who were first-generation Americans, grew up in intergenerational homes in the Midwest primarily out of economic necessity. Perhaps in part for this reason, my siblings and I were all encouraged to apply to out-of-state colleges and strike out on our own to seek our fortunes in the larger world. This all seemed fine -- until we had children of our own and realized only then that our kids would not have easy access to the rest of the family -- and nor would we.
Looking back on all of this, I decided to explore the question of whether extended families that lived in close proximity might treat their elders better than families that were geographically separated. In the course of my reading, I came across much information on the attitudes of traditional cultures toward their older members -- particularly Chinese, Native American, African American and Latino communities, which are generally known for holding their elders in high esteem, honoring them for their experience, knowledge and wisdom, and treating them with great respect and care.
According to Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, however, various cultures throughout the world hold a very wide range of attitudes toward the elderly, from being extremely caring and respectful to blatantly rejecting. In a recent lecture at UCLA, titled "Honor or Abandon: Why Does Treatment of the Elderly Vary So Widely Among Human Societies?" Diamond cited traditional communities that treat their elders with extreme solicitude, to the point of enlisting children to chew food for their toothless relatives, as well as some nomadic tribes that abandon or even kill their older members during famines or long treks. "Yet the fact remains," Diamond asserts, "that many societies treat their elderly better than Americans do," noting that placing one's parents in a nursing home could also be seen as cruel, depending one's point of view. As he suggests, "A closer look at how traditional societies value (or don't value) their old people might teach us what to emulate and what to avoid."
From the opposite vantage point, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, helps inspire older people themselves to be able to approach the latter part of life with greater consciousness. As Reb Zalman approached his own retirement with great reluctance some 20 years ago, he realized that he needed to "recontextualize aging as the anticipated fulfillment of life, not its inevitable decline." This led him to write From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older and to form an institute, now known as the Saging Guild, to train mentors and offer workshops to prepare people to face their later years with less anxiety and with greater depth and meaning.
Now that the leading edge of the baby boom generation has reached age 67 and the population of healthy, active post-50 members is expected to expand exponentially in years to come, perhaps we have the power, through our sheer numbers, to take the lead in turning the tide toward more fulfilling futures for ourselves and, in so doing, also become models for growing older with dignity.
Without scuttling the healthy living habits that may provide us with a better quality of life, what if we decided to simply give up the losing battle to emulate the young and started treating ourselves with more compassion and self-respect? What if we gave more thought to the knowledge and wisdom we have to offer rather than giving space to regret? And what if we were to collect, cultivate, and communicate that wisdom in a form that brought benefit to others? Could we then begin to reconsider our collective dream of making a difference in the world, exercise talents we had long ignored, communicate love even as the body falters, inspire others, and ultimately find a way to leave a legacy that matters more than money? If you think this vision is attainable, what might you do in your own life to bring it about?