02/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Change for the Aged

Recently the Florida Sun-Sentinel ran a story about a Florida man who had so neglected his 90 year-old mother that her shoes had "grown into her feet". The story alleged that the son lived with the elderly woman but took no care of her hypertension or diabetes. Aware of her need for 24-hour medical care he chose not to provide it, and addition to starving her had her living on a feces-ridden carpet. He claimed not to have a good relationship with her. Charges were filed against him and he was arrested.

The story seems especially poignant as we are about to inaugurate a young president whose campaign -- while it cut across race and creed and age -- was evidently invigorated by youthful energy. Barack Obama is enormously popular in schools and college campuses across the country, and his "yes we can" campaign is based on the promise of change and infused with a dissatisfaction for what has come before. At a time when our country is in a paroxysm of economic self-doubt and cleansing itself of unsavory characters, corruption, dubious foreign policy, and a domestic agenda that smacks of cronyism, it is indeed tempting to equate what has come before with "old" and the incoming, the new, with "young". Next we're painting old as bad and young as good. Then the brush bristles subtly spread and we find ourselves disrespecting our elderly even more than we already do.

It's a strange thing the way so many of us seem to dislike old people: the way we roll our eyes at them, assume they all have Alzheimer's, discount their advice, shut them away in homes, and let so very many of them die by themselves, unappreciated, lonely, disconnected and superfluous. It's not only a human tragedy and an ethical travesty; it's a great waste of resources. In this digital age please consider that while it may not handle driving as well as before, the computer that is an older person's brain has developed a very effective nonsense meter: a great ability to separate the useful time wasters of life from the meaningful projects. Ringing with experience and perspective the rest of us lack and excruciatingly aware of their mortality, older people are less likely to waste time on the very things our weak economy is pointing out are some of our gravest social mistakes: the endless accumulation of things we don't need with money we don't have, the pursuit of fame or celebrity, an endless capacity for self-involvement, and a sense of national isolationism rather than connection with the rest of the world. Many times the elderly look for connection, feel compassion, and refrain from judgments they might earlier have made.

In his August 2008 book Why We Hate Us, author Dick Meyer postulates that it is precisely in throwing out so much of what came before that we have come to feel distress, to doubt ourselves and our future, to hate the very loud, brash, valueless chatter that surrounds us, and to feel profoundly dissatisfied with the most opulent, luxurious, technologically advanced lifestyle in the history of mankind. Reevaluating what the elderly have to offer may be one answer not only to our financial woes -- older people bring far more wisdom and experience to the workplace than young ones, and the volunteer force of elderly is formidable in our culture -- but to our spinning moral compass. Literally and figuratively embracing our elderly relatives and friends may be a fine way out of our moral pickle, the aching meaninglessness that the new president is so keen to address.

Other cultures, especially Eastern ones, have a long tradition of venerating the elderly. Despite poverty, war, social upheaval and other challenges of a smaller and more personal scale, people in the East are accustomed to sharing their homes with their grandparents and even their great-grandparents. They define themselves according to lineage, to their ancestors. Everything is changing as the population swells and resources dwindle, but in China especially, ancestor worship still pervades the culture. This may be because most Eastern cultures are themselves older than ours and have had more time to mature and set wiser priorities. We would do well to follow their model.

Why not perform an act of service by helping an elderly neighbor? Mow a lawn, carry some groceries, pick up trash, make a run to the drugstore, open a jar, fix a leak, walk a pet, clean up a room, play a game of cards, just stop by for a cup of coffee. When you do, notice the automatic tendency to emphasize the differences that set us apart instead of the similarities that bring us together. Is it not true that if we cannot feel connected to those farther along the road of life than we are it will take far more than a new administration to help us solve the problems of the world? We are all the same. We are all old or getting older, right from the start, right from day one.

President Obama left the campaign trail to be with his dying grandmother. He grew up in Hawaii, not only a state where people live longer than anywhere else in the country, but a place where Eastern influences are stronger than anywhere else in America. The new commander-in-chief chose Joe Biden for a running mate, showing he values age and experience and understands that turning away from the elderly is turning away from mortality, that turning away from mortality is failing to acknowledge death, that failing to acknowledge death is to miss the wonder and meaning of life. Here's hoping he puts new programs into place that bring the elderly back into the mainstream of our culture as the valued, appreciated, important citizens they should be. That will be a change worth applauding.