I’d like you to consider how the title of this piece made you feel. Did you think it disrespectful of me to say “old people”? Did you think about just moving on to something else because, who wants to read anything about old people? Maybe you are an old person and feel like you know all you need to know about being old. Well, I am fifty. Some people say fifty is the new thirty, so I’ve got at least four decades until I will be considered old, right?
Not according to my oldest son who asked me when I will start doing “grandmother things”. I wasn’t sure what he meant by “grandmother things” other than his little Italian Greyhound is cold and he would like to have a sweater for it. Maybe he thinks I should knit? (I wanted to say, “When you make me a grandmother”… but his sweet girlfriend was there, and I ‘m trying not to scare her away.)
We don’t like the thought of getting old in our society. No one looks on the elderly with admiration anymore. At 50, I feel it already from younger people at work and even at church. (Step aside, Mrs. Past-Your-Prime… We’d like to see youth and inexperience lead us forward.) When we were an agrarian society, and our culture was built around the home, generational families depended on the wisdom and experience of their elders. They were held in highest esteem. Now? Now, we have Google. Who needs an elder’s wisdom if you can just watch a YouTube video? You can literally see how to do anything on there. Right about now, we are doubling the knowledge we have about every 12-18 months. Way back when, like a 120 years ago and before, we doubled our human knowledge every 100 years. Amazing.
So where does that leave our elders? In many cases, it leaves them out in the cold. If elders were valued for their wisdom, and now that need is met elsewhere, how do the old folks among us garner value? I mean they are a drain on society, aren’t they? They take up the bulk of the US healthcare dollar, and they are often dependent, frail and needy. Most of them have no idea what a modem, gigabyte, or band width is. (Come to think of it, neither do I.) And have you ever tried to teach an elderly person to use a cell phone or computer? Puh-lease. I have. Can we step into the 21st Century? It’s not rocket science, Grandma. Oh wait. Maybe it is. I mean 150 years ago we didn’t have phone of any kind, and now I can call a friend in Japan and Facetime with them. I mean, if I had a friend in Japan. And in that same 150 years, we have increased the human life expectancy by more than three decades.
All of our efforts toward improved healthcare, diet and exercise have worked! We are living longer! Only we didn’t consider that living longer would not make us young for longer. I makes us old for longer. Curses! We didn’t quite think that one through, did we? And what do we fear almost as much as we fear public speaking? Getting old. Why? Because we know that what we think won’t matter anymore, we won’t look as hot as we do now, and there will be nothing of consequence left for us to do.
But what if that’s not really true? Well, I mean we won’t be as hot as we were… but the rest? Hogwash. Did you know that Grandma Moses started painting at 76? Gladys Burrill ran a marathon at 92. Ouch. Peter Roget invented the Thesaurus at 73. (Thanks, Peter. I mean, with gratitude, Peter.) At 68, Sir William Crookes invented a device for detecting alpha particles. You can Google what those are, but you likely still won’t understand it. Asa Long was 70 when he became the oldest U.S. checkers champion… okay. Bad example. But still. Momofuku Ando invented Ramen noodles in a cup at age 61 and at 22 cents a serving, has saved countless college students from starvation. Ray Kroc created McDonalds at 52, and is now singularly responsible for a nation of fat people. My personal favorite is John Pemberton. He created Coca-Cola at age 55. Praise be to God.
By 2030, there will be more than 70 million people over 65 in our country. 8.5 million of those will be over 85. We might like for old people to fade away, but they aren’t gonna. And let me remind us all, we’re talking about the Baby Boomers. The “me generation”. They are going to speak up and be heard. They are not going to go quietly into the dark night. Move over, youth and vitality. Age and experience is moving in and staking a claim.
We are going to have to do better by our elderly. Why? Because societies are judged by how they treat their children and elderly. Because it is on the shoulders of the elderly that we climb and reach higher and farther. Young people have it so much better than the generations before, but they have shown up late to the party. Old people have striven and survived with fewer conveniences, and pushed through to provide a better way of life. Weak, frail, and dependent? Not so much, really. How about we muster up some respect and honor for our elders. With any luck, we’ll join them one day.