Friday, May 8, 2009

What Are Old People For?

I had an compelling conversation on just this subject with one of my student assistants regarding the treatment of elders in his native culture. He is from Eritrea. I listened with interest as he explained to me the approach his culture has to the older and the elderly and some of his young perspective on this influence in his life. In listening, I realized that this subject that I have been trying to work into my interior conversations of late on the value of aging is more than a solitary dialogue. In my student's case, he was raised by his Grandparents and knew nothing of an alternative perspective until he came to the States. His frustration in Africa was, understandably, never being allowed to openly disagree with an elder. When he came to this country, he was shocked by the conversations that reflected a total lack of respect that his American relatives engaged in. The culture shock has receded but this reconciliation continues in him as he is caught between two worlds. It continues in me too as I expressed to him my frustrations in the culture expecting me to be more matronly than I feel and having to meet that expectation of my age in order to illicit respect. The conversation sort of faded away between us as the work at hand encroached on our conversation. Still, I found myself spinning in a tiny eddy of our exchange.

Thursday I came to reading my daily dose of Time Goes By and was introduced to the geriatrician, Dr. Bill Thomas. He is the author of "What Are Old People For?" and as well as being the creator of Eden Alternative and he was making an intelligent and compassionate appeal to Oprah Winfrey to consider what her influence in pitching constant youth has on the aging population of America.

I like to poke fun of Oprah Winfrey along with many others. She seems to get a little suckered by her own PR sometimes and she's an easy target. I too get a glimpse of my own folly of self perception and I am made fun of, too, for far less success and joy than Oprah has created in people's lives. Just walking across the room can illicit any number of mostly unconscious judgments from my girth to my odd hair. I cannot help but have sympathy for Oprah or anyone who is older, in this way. Bottom line, when it comes to the mass media, Winfrey wields a tremendous influence of the perspectives of millions of Americans who, right or wrong, turn to her as an authority on everything from nail polish to Hospice Care. It just is. I think Dr. Thomas does a pretty good job of appealing to, what I consider is essential in Winfrey: her strength of character and ability to grow into new and interesting thought and action.

Granted just because my wondering what old people are good for doesn't make it interesting but the thought that there are unused resources of life-giving, life-supporting and life-enhancing abilities at our fingertips in the cumulative wisdom of the our older years that no one can get to because we are building Club Meds on the river Denile, simple breaks my heart. Especially when I realize that that high rise is going to completely block my view of a satisfying end of my life and cast me and millions of others into it's shadow until we draw our final breath.

In reflecting on my conversation, I realize that my young student assistant needs to have frustration in not being able to openly argue with an elder. He cannot yet see how this has strengthened him. The young cannot understand that this frustration has an actual function that manifests in their adult life to hone a strength in temperament. It creates a stronger adult presence and an ability to fuse thought and action in life. It gives one enough self reflection to temper one's belief in ones own PR. The elders carry the depth of intention and love from the roots of the family to the young, new growth. It is essential and spiritual and cannot be recognized for what it is when we are new to the world. I didn't get to tell him that and I wonder what he would have heard, if I did. We were called away as there is a Club Med with a picture book view of the horizon we are busy building.

Picture: Filimon Ghilbretinsae preforming a traditional dance from his country, Eretria, at Western WashingtonUniversity's AfroCaribbean Club Celebration (and also displaying the fact that, no matter where you are from, everyone has a little bit o'Elvis in their soul!)

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