I attended a family dinner. Attendees spanned the decades from twenties to eighties.
As you may have surmised, the octogenarian was the grandmother, the upper end of the Gen Z’s were the grandchildren, from there we went to Gen X’s, Boomers I and Boomers !I who were grandma's boys.
We laughed and joked. Shared stories across the generations and found areas of common interest and passion.
One of the youngest of the Gen Zs was interested in Black and White films and could rattle off titles of the classics from the early to mid 1900’s. I was seated next to a woman, most probably a member of the Boomer II generation, who was the mother of 2 of the Gen Z seated at the other end of the table. Her sons helped her create an app to promote balance in older adults in order to prevent falls.
The conversation turned to aging when our elegant Octogenarian referred to herself as “old” because she forgot something; something I had also forgotten. That was my signal!!!!
I told her that her statement was the result of society’s ageist attitudes and beliefs which we internalize from the time we are young. There was nothing to suggest that her forgetting an incidental reference had anything to do with her age and, that as the attendee representing the oldest generation, she had wisdom and knowledge to share from which everyone could benefit including me at 11 years her junior. We continued talking about phrases and expressions with which we are all familiar that are indicative of ageism.
She proceeded to recount a recent experience in an Apple store. She went for help with a few of her technological devices. She said it was clear the “genius” at the bar had no interest in helping her, appeared annoyed and was both dismissive, and rude. She reported that she submitted a formal written complaint and suggested I contact the store manage to educate the staff about how to speak with customers and, especially older adults who, in reality, could be their mother or grandmother.
When we finished speaking, the woman seated to my left said she didn’t hear our entire exchange but that I said something that was very wise. We opened the conversation to the 16 others seated around the long table.
Everyone agreed that, as a society, we do not respect or value older adults. The man of the home where the dinner took place voiced that he lived in Hong Kong for many years. His experience with the Asian culture was one of respect for elders, recognizing the value they have in their families, in their communities, and in society as a whole.
But the gentleman also stated that he didn’t want to get "old”. I pointed out that he was internalizing the very attitudes I was discussing which stemmed from our society’s attitudes towards older people. Attitudes he himself acknowledged is different from other countries.
I asked him why he felt the way he did and challenged him to think of himself as someone who, as he continues to advance in years, will accumulate wisdom through experiences that he will be able to share with those who are much younger and from which they will benefit.
His beliefs about getting older were of frailty, infirm, loss of capability and independence. I don’t think he realized that those words must have been piercing to his mother seated across from me at the other end of the table. I know that’s how they sounded to me.
I directed by remarks to the Gen Z’s at his end of the table. It was clear that they adored their “grandma”. Each one took their time sitting next to her before and after dinner. It was cleared they loved her, shared stories, their progress and latest ventures, hugged her, laughed with her. I doubt if any one of them looked down upon her as being “old”.
I wondered about their thoughts of other people's grandma's.
I encouraged them, and all those seated at the table, to think of themselves as "evolving elders". An active process living inside of us all. Gathering our experiences like the leaves we rake together in fall after they fall from the trees. When we rake them into piles they blend together in a beautiful melange, the crumbled and dried, withered and limp alongside those that are perfectly shaped and vibrantly colored.
We concluded the conversation with my passion for elevating the voices of older adults and inspiring a national conversation on how we value, care for and treat older adults.
The woman to my left agreed. We discard and devalue older people. We don't want to see them when they are weak and frail, and we don't want to deal with our own feelings when we cannot care for our loved ones.
I'm reflecting on that statement as I'm writing this blog. Is the reason we don't want to approach topics about care and treatment of older adults because we're afraid of our own frailty, is it that we actually hold our elders in high regard and therefore, it pains us to see them become frail and infirm, is it because we're too busy with our own lives and lifestyle and; therefore, feel guilty that we're unable to care for them, or is it that we just no longer see the value they represent to our society?
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