The way Americans view seniors leaves a lot to be desired; many in our society see our honored elders as outdated, irrelevant annoyances that mostly just take up resources that could be passed along to the young, vibrant ones who are still growing.However, there is absolutely nothing about passing a certain age that makes people suddenly stop growing. Yes, physical growth stops sometime around age 20, but psychological, mental, and spiritual growth only stops when someone is isolated and ignored.Seniors Are Still GrowingIf you see aging as a slow descent into increasing degrees of incompetence that ends in death, this is flat out wrong. It may be politically incorrect to say it so bluntly, but there is no point in the human lifespan at which incompetence and irrelevance are mandatory, healthy, or even normal.There have been many theories of psychosocial development that break down the human life into sets of tasks based on age. One of the most successful in terms of actually describing the human life is that of psychologist Robert Peck established in 1968. Peck names three tasks for the elderly; Ego Differentiation, Body Transcendence, and Ego Transcendence:
- Ego Differentiation means “Learning how to grow into a role other than those typically assigned to middle-age people (i.e. active parent, employee) and find a purpose based on your own personality rather than the desires and structures imposed by society.”
- Body Transcendence means “Learning how to adapt to, and find comfort in spite of, your changing body.”
- Ego Transcendence means “Learning how to focus your attention and concern on people, causes, and events outside of your own life; and take pleasure in participating in those things for the sake of building a better world for those around you.”Seniors Are Affected By the Storieserrs We TellAs more and more Baby Boomers turn 65 and a growing percentage of our adult population is retirement age or older, the difference between ‘irrelevant old fogies’ and ‘engaged, ego-transcended elders building a better world’ is ever-more-critical to our society. However, a large part of their ability to find purpose and engagement in the world is our ability to understand and encourage them.Looking at the mass-media portrayals of the elderly, you would think that they were universally slow or immobile, hard of hearing and losing their eyesight, obnoxious, needy, unemployed, and suffering at least mild cognitive impairment. The facts say otherwise:
- According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate among persons age 65-75 hovers around 25%; meaning that about one out of four seniors age 75 or under is still working.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only 6.5% of non-institutionalized adults over age 65 require assistance from another person to function in their day-to-day lives. 76% of those in this group self-rated their health as “Good,” Very Good,” or “Excellent.”
- According to the National Institutes of Health, only one in three seniors age 65 to 75 have meaningful hearing loss. This number rises to nearly half among seniors age 75 and older. Nearly all adults age 65 and older use glasses; however, only one in five have relevant sight impairment.As for being ‘obnoxious and needy,’ that is where the stories we tell ourselves come in. If you have not already seen the excellent speech “This Is Water” by David Foster Wallace, take 10 minutes out of your day and look it up and YouTube. The point of the speech is this; in every situation you experience in life, it is your choice how you interpret it.For example, when your grandmother starts to look wistful and reminisce about her days working on the farm, are you going to think “here we go again, another rambling story about stuff I will never care about”… or will you choose to think “My grandmother has lived through some incredible changes in our society, what could I learn from her perspective?”This holiday season, most of us will be spending a fair amount of time with the seniors in our lives. It is up to us how we choose to spend these precious moments. If we choose to respect and value what our honored elders have to say rather than dismiss them as irrelevant, we give them the opportunity to engage and participate in our lives (and by extension society as a whole), which helps bring out the best in them…and in ourselves.