Dr. Mike Obsatz, Professor Emeritus at Macalester College
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Age-ing, Sage-ing and Still Shining
When I was a boy, age sixty was considered pretty old. Many people I knew were ill and dying in their fifties and sixties. Today, the miracle is that people are living longer these days -- many to almost 100. That is 40 additional years for many people. This means that midlife is now around 50, and retirement does not mean packing it up and sleeping for hours in our rocking chairs.
This may be due to medical advances, early detection of diseases, more available health
care, and people learning to value and care for their mental and physical health on a regular basis.
I am almost 81 years old. My body parts have
become my children. I must care for my ears, eyes, teeth, hips, backs, legs, feet, joints, lungs, heart, etc. Every day, there is attention paid to diet, exercise, medical appointments.
Older people are not the fragile, dawdling people sometimes shown in movies and on television.
I have watched older shows like "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Golden Girls." The humor is often putdowns of growing older. Carol Burnett plays "the old folks." Estelle Getty is in her 80's, and although she is sharp and witty, there are clearly jokes at her expense due to her age.
Side note: On "The Golden Girls," Rose Nyland (played by the wonderful Betty White) is a dumb hick from Minnesota. Many of the stereotypes of Minnesota are degrading. But that's another story.
Older people are incredible. They have wisdom and experience. They have overcome many obstacles and much suffering. They have gone through loss after loss. They have watched trends come and go. They have lived through peacetime and wartime. They have marched for the freedom and rights of others. They have created beautiful art-- books, movies, paintings, etc.
Many have traveled to different parts of the world. Many have raised children and loved grandchildren. In "the Sibling Society," Robert Bly states that many young people rely on the internet or each other more than they do and older people. He believes that elder wisdom goes untapped.
Elder wisdom is cherished in so many cultures. In America, we learn early that wrinkles are ugly and gray hairs are signs of incompetence.
A number of amazing elderly people have died in the last few years. Cicely Tyson, Robert Bly, Stephen Sondheim, Betty White, and Sidney Poitier are just a few of the famous ones.
What can the elderly teach others about patience, humility, living in community, and social change? It is time to change our thinking about getting older. Older can be bolder. Older can be wiser. And older is definitely not time to be "put out to pasture."