I am getting more and more practice answering people’s questions since I have been invited to share my thoughts about aging with media-savvy podcasters. This is a delightful experience for me, since up until recently, the majority of conversations I have had about aging were in my own head.
I find people have challenges talking out loud about aging. It is rare that I get into discussions with friends exploring the benefits of being older in our culture. More often than not, I find myself discussing ways I am being ignored or minimized. How I am the target of scammers BECAUSE I am a certain age. My capacity to contribute based on my life experience is held hostage by the assumption that I am technologically illiterate.
So, when I go on these shows and am asked what are two to three takeaways I would like to leave, I admit – I’m stumped. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and here are some of my observations.
Old People Are Becoming the Norm
Ours is the first generation where a majority of us will live into our 80s and 90s with relatively good health and independence. That concentrated legacy will have a very different impact on HOW our grandchildren view aging than on how we experienced it. Instead of it being an exception, old people will be the norm.
The majority of us will live separate lives from our children and grandchildren, increasing the gap of understanding and further disconnecting us from one another. This will prove a burden in communities where affordable housing is not available for service-providers. Strangers will provide intimate and end-of-life care to care communities established solely for aging elders who are unable to live independently.
Competing for Resources
Until we find ways to create elder-friendly communities that integrate skill sets and values of older generations with younger generations, there will be competition for services and service providers. The goal should be to find ways to contribute to the community values across all age groups that will ensure every member of the community has three guarantees: access to quality health care, a way to contribute to the cumulative wealth of the community, and a role in sustaining the legacy of those who have gone before.
If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is how essential community is in meeting the varying needs of humans. We cannot do this without each other. Increasing tolerance for the unfamiliar and reinforcing core values of empathy, compassion, and willingness to volunteer time and goods needs to be year-round, not seasonal.
The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in our society. It is frequently much easier to find fault in others and not be willing to apply the same standards to ourselves. But as the adage goes, “When pointing fingers, one finger is pointed away from you; three are pointed back.” There is no escaping the responsibility for our actions; just different explanations for what took us so long.
I have begun to entertain the notion that I will not outlive the pandemic. Not because I am going to die any time soon, but because COVID is an evolutionary development and is now with us permanently.
I am a member of the generation that entered into the world in the days before a polio vaccine was available. I saw the incredible blossoming of health and the extension of the life-span that occurred when the vaccine was successfully distributed. I know, without reservation, the benefits a COVID vaccine can have on quality of life. To think that there are people who are actively fighting its distribution confounds me. Their selfishness angers me. Their ignorance appalls me. But at my core, it is my lack of ability to influence them and help them see the error of their ways that is most frustrating.
This is not the first time my generation has adapted to irrevocable change. We were the children who went through Cold War atomic bomb drills consisting of tuck, duck and cover. The absurdity of that survival strategy was not lost on me. What changed was my willingness to suspend reality and accept it as fact.
That skill of suspending reality is going to be needed in the coming days as we make our way through the remaining alphabet of viral adaptations of COVID until we are able to pharmaceutically limit transmission or until it dies out on its own.
Those of us who survive will carry with us new understanding of our vulnerability to the future viral iterations as well as a font of knowledge that can be strategically used to keep us alive longer and in better shape.
I continue to find nourishment in my concept of five pillars of aging. I am daily inspired by the legacy of values that was provided to me in my family, my church, my school, and my community. In these very dark days, reflecting on values of giving back to the community, acting out of compassion, and finding purpose and meaning in sharing my take on ideas that I inherited from others gives me tasks to accomplish. That, in turn, becomes self-reinforcing.
Staying engaged is challenging with the current restrictions on movement and being around others. But I am awed by how adaptable we have become technologically and inter-personally. This leaves me with hope that we can sustain these new forms of connection until our environment is once again safe enough for up-close-and-personal exchange.
Without doubt, the search for purpose and meaning has taken on new urgency as the pandemic has revealed the gaps in connection with each other and with the Unknown. The search for an explanation of the extreme suffering we are all experiencing has given way to a new sharing of ideals, as well as revealing depths of despair.
Where I continue to return is to the theme of “enough”: that I am enough, I have enough, there is enough, and I know what “good enough” means for me and for my fellow beings. In those moments of scarcity, how do I reassure myself I will be ok? In those moments of abundance, how do I share my wealth in ways that honor the source?
Thanks for listening.