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AGING WELL: What young folks should know Missy Buchanan, Aug 20, 2009
By Missy Buchanan Special Contributor
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Next month: What young people wished older adults understood about them. Readers are invited to send comments to email@example.com.
While waiting at an airport recently, I caught a glimpse of a glossy magazine in a newsstand with one of those “10 Things Women Wished Men Understood” kind of headlines.
By the time I boarded the plane, my mind had jumped from the headline to wondering about what older adults wished younger folks understood about them. And vice versa.
As soon as I arrived at the church-sponsored retirement village where I was to speak, I grabbed a notebook, hoping for an opportunity to talk to residents about that question. Over the next two days, I spoke one-on-one with more than 50 older adults representing a broad spectrum of ages and stages.
A retired schoolteacher wished that young people understood that growing old did not mean growing dumb. She made the point that even though she doesn’t know how to use all the latest technological gadgets, she’s still got a brain.
Others said they wished younger folks would show greater respect for their elders, instead of mocking them for being behind the times.
An 83-year-old widower wished young people could temporarily trade places with older adults to help them empathize with the physical challenges of aging. For just one day, he wanted them to endure the pain of arthritis in their hands, hips and knees. He wished they would have to wear hearing aids and try to read a book with only half-vision.
Most of all, he wanted them to feel the loneliness of losing a spouse of 62 years.
Several residents agreed with a former registered nurse who wished the younger generation would not stereotype older people as selfish cheapskates. It seemed to her that young people fail to understand that many elderly are afraid of outliving their money.
Almost every resident emphasized a desire to control decisions about their life for as long as possible. They spoke about the importance of dignity, privacy and the need to know that their lives still have purpose.
Several shared stories of the rejection they felt when younger relatives were too busy with their own lives to keep in touch.
A former judge cautioned young people about labeling all older adults as being resistant to change. He wanted them to consider all the changes older folks have already endured in their lifetime, admitting that change does get harder as you lose independence.
When I returned home, I also canvassed some of my older friends. One great-grandmother wanted young people to know that old folks still have a sense of humor. Another wished that young people would realize that they, too, would grow old one day.
One of the most intriguing comments came from a former church lay leader who tactfully questioned the open-mindedness of some young adults who claim to be tolerant and inclusive. Her experience had been that younger people often have a narrow mindset when it comes to older adults.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from my 79-year-old friend, John Quinlan: “I just want to be recognized as me. I am now slower and weaker than before. I tire easily, but it is still me.”
I think John’s comment captures what people of all ages want. To be recognized as a person of worth. Even in our brokenness. Even in our old age.
Recently a 20-something seminarian said that young people don’t respect older adults for things they’ve done in the past. I confess I bristled at his comment. Relationships between generations hinge on respect, and older adults have a long life of invaluable experiences to be shared. Still, I believe the young man’s point was that none of us can rest on our spiritual laurels, no matter our age.
From my middle-aged point of view, it seems that the church has often been tripped up by an old-versus-young mentality. Let’s remember that neither old nor young is the enemy. And in our conversations, let’s be careful not to confuse old people with old habits or out-dated ideas.
In my informal survey, one thing was clearly evident. Just like their younger counterparts, older adults have deep feelings of joy and fear, hope and frustration.
I am confident that God created the aging process for a divine purpose. Perhaps He designed each season of life so that young and old would learn to love more fully by caring for one another.
May it be so.
Ms. Buchanan, a member of FUMC Rockwall, Texas, is the author of Living with Purpose in a Worn Out Body.