Should We Stop Being Nice to Older Adults?

06/12/2015 10:29 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Most of us are nice to dogs, and children, and people who are challenged. Of course, we should be. When we perceive that someone is less capable than we are, less able to fend for themselves, or not major contributors to the day-to-day transactions of our economy, we are usually less inclined to treat them as competitors or even equals, and we become more like societal caretakers. In general, that's a good thing.

However, what if some of these people are not helped by such a caretaker attitude? What if, in fact, they are actually hurt by being treated as less capable?

I give you our rapidly growing population of older adults. Every day in America, nearly 10,000 people turn 65 years old. Whether retiring voluntarily or forced to, older adults end up being putting out to pasture like horses, placed on the margins of a society that expects nothing from them. Unfortunately, most readily accept this removal from the mainstream, often looking forward to it after decades of an "after I retire" mentality.

Here's the problem... research on aging emphatically tells us that older adults who do not challenge themselves physically and mentally, who do not stay engaged in life with a network of friends and as part of a community, and who do not have meaningful purpose in their lives... these older adults age poorly. This poor aging is associated with decline, lower quality of life, and high medical costs.

So, are we actually programming ourselves and our older adults for an aging experience that we don't want and does not have to happen? Yes, we are indeed.

Blue Zones: The Way Life Was and Can Be

Dan Buettner in his book Blue Zones identifies areas on the globe where people are more likely to live long, but also to be old with vitality. Consistently, these older adults' lives consist of moving, learning, social engagement, purpose and less impairment. Even more important, these elders are considered cultural treasures! That's right. They are viewed as valuable resources for the community; not marginalized but, in fact, considered essential sources of wisdom, guidance, and experience.

Actually, this view of older adults as valuable and essential has been the more prevalent human experience, but since the Industrial Revolution has been replaced with the myth that older adults are more a liability on society... accounts payable, a drain on the economy. This myth is not only reflected in our public policy, it is reflected in the lives older adults who choose to live essentially disengaged from any meaningful contribution to society. It's as if we save gold for six, seven or eight decades, and when we have a large pile, we throw it away. Or we painstakingly age a good scotch and then pour it down the drain!

When we are nice to older adults, we are viewing them with the faulty lens of a post-Industrial Revolution mentality, seeing the age but not the wisdom; accentuating the appearance over substance; missing the immense treasure that has been decades in the building. Let's stop being nice to the elderly and be instead awed the human capital that is in our midst. Let's be creative with our public policy to ensure that our older adults can stay engaged in a productive, purposeful way.

Realize that with the aging of our world, in just the blink of an eye, every fifth American will be over 65. We will be forced to do this. Why not do it sooner? Why continue to squander the human capital we spent so much time and effort accumulating? Here's some things we can seriously consider doing now.

What if?

1) What if our older Americans were expected to become part of our education system? Why shouldn't many be involved in education from elementary to post graduate work? There would be historical value for sure, but also life skills, storytelling, mentoring, and nurturing.

2) What if our experience and motivated grandparents were integrated into our childcare system? When families are struggling to find and afford quality childcare, why are we not doing what human societies having been doing for eons? Have older adults involved?

3) What if we were to create a registry of skilled older adults who were ready to mentor or act as consultants to businesses and organizations?This could provide a ready source of expertise without the usual cost for such consultation. It could also be the means to mentor our next great political and business leaders.

4) What if every community created a registry of volunteers of older adults? With town and municipal budgets falling short, why couldn't we harness the experience and willingness of this growing part of our population?

It's time we unleash the superhero that is our collective older adult population on the evils (needs) of our society. Both will be better for it. You, dear reader will be better for it. We will all be better for it. Live long; live well!