Being aged in the land of the young
In spite of our spectacular growth in numbers, one unmistakable trend continuing in Canada is the gradual devaluation of older people. And while we continue to analyze the young, photograph them and deplore them even while envying them, we seem reluctant to admit to the presence of a subculture of the aged, with all the implications of segregation and alienation.
While studying other societies, Margaret Mead argued that “the past of the adults is the future of each new generation” and therefore in some societies is respected; families all together cherish their elders.
In North American societies, families are small, members live apart and social changes are so compelling that to learn about the past is too difficult or is ignored as irrelevant.
The aged have become a strangely isolated generation and are often seen as the carriers of a dying culture.
Paradoxically, all of this is occurring when in the history of humankind elders today are more fit and able and while medical progress and public health policies have kept them “young”, the current technology tends to make them obsolete.
Everyone hates to grow old, yet studies suggest that people age at very different paces and many of the changes formerly attributed to age are actually caused by other factors.
The old cliche that a person is as old as his arteries is quite inaccurate.
It is more correct to say that a person is as sick as their arteries and arterial disorders are often caused by diet, stress and other lifestyle factors rather than by getting older.
In fact, many of those traits seen as characteristics of the elderly are not peculiar to the eldest. A group of university students and a group of elders were recently rated according to the “supposed” characteristics of the aged.
Young students were found to be “more negative, dissatisfied, socially inept, and unrealistic.”
In sum, the students were “more senile” than their elders.
The current generations of our aged are healthier, better educated and more politically aware than those of the past.
Carl Jung, who lived with great vigour until the age of 85, saw aging as a process of continuous spiritual development (“individuation”), with important psychological/spiritual changes occurring right up to the time of death.
Jung wrote: “Anyone who fails to go along with life remains suspended, stiff and rigid in mid-air and that is why so many people get wooden in old age: they look back and cling to the past with a secret fear of death in their hearts. From the middle of life onward, only such a person who remains vitally alive, who is ready to die with life, in the secret hour of life’s midday, the parabola is reversed, death is born. We grant goal and purpose to the ascent of life . . . why not to the descent?”
Most students of aging agree, that developing a wider repertory of activities throughout one’s entire life would make life richer at any point in life.
I remind my young university students of this truth when they are a mere 17 or 18 years of age — “Cultivate versatility in your lives now.”
In a study analyzing interview data with 600 aged persons, it was reported that continuous engagement in life’s activities contributed most to the psychological health of those interviewed.
The healthiest and happiest were interested in conserving and enjoying rather than in acquiring and exploiting.
They were driven by a concern for others rather than by a control over others.
If the older generations have obligations to the young, it may be that ability to show the next generations how to face ultimate concerns.
Octogenarian Scott-Maxwell once wrote: “Age is an intense and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something to be carried high. If it is a long defeat, it is also a victory, meaningful for the initiates of time, if not for those who have come less far.”