Blog 52. Aging in America—a systems question?

Last week, I reviewed Julian Barnes’ story of an aging, retired man named Tony Webster.  Webster lives alone, remembers regrettable events of his youth, suffers remorse when he encounters the living and ghostly persons of his past, and still does not find a way to heal the hurts or to generate meaning in his life.  Perhaps, as his former girlfriend says, he “just doesn’t get it.”

Does today’s youth-oriented culture—a functioning system—regard older people as irrelevant, as those who no longer “get it?”  I’ll take “get it” to mean possessing the courage to risk intimate sharing, the determination to seek meaning, the commitment to create significance in living, and a willingness to bear responsibility for the consequences.  That describes a strong character, sometimes requiring a lifetime to develop.  It’s a resource, not irrelevancy.

What’s that functioning system I mentioned?  It’s a product of current physical and economic mobility.  A hundred fifty years ago, people were less portable, often remaining connected physically and emotionally to the family home, as contrasted with being connected to today’s internet.  In those days, daily work in the house or on the farm kept everyone busy.  An alert grandparent lent guidance in raising the crops and in raising the babies.  In sophisticated words, the function of an elder was to mentor the younger.

In today’s culture, assisting the children is still a necessary function, as illustrated by the ubiquity of daycare facilities.  However, modern young adults seek their fortunes by moving away from their parents’ home, whence the grandkids become better connected to Google than to grandparents.  No longer raising either corn or babies, can seniors remain significant only through individual volunteer work, such as teaching Sunday school, promoting a political cause, or helping at the museum?

That’s the systemic issue.  Our society overlooks a resource: those who can still contribute ideas and judgement, those who can remember the mistakes of the past, those who can distinguish enduring thrift from immediate gratification, those who can still show children how to tie shoes and plant flowers and fry pancakes.  However, life today is physically mobile; to confer with government or commerce or even with children usually requires commuting.  Most seniors do not relish freeways.

I can’t create a meaningful senior scenario for the entire society, but I can envision possibilities.  What if the workaday world retained more of its retired folks in advisory capacities, if only to maintain corporate memory?  That raises fears of minimum wage laws and cheating someone else out of a full-time job—or perhaps cheating a bureaucrat out of domination.  Would a retirement home be more attractive if combined with daycare or a nursery school?  That raises the fear of liability—a kid could hurt an oldster or vice versa.  Suppose retirement communities or associations offered free tutoring or consulting to nonprofit institutions, on academic topics or law or engineering or anything else?  No pay, no liability, free help for the society, significant cooperation and interaction for the seniors.  I suppose that raises the fear of incompetence.

Fear is a great political motivator.  And a progress preventer.  Let’s get past it in politics and social progress.

Like everyone else, seniors need continuing significance.  That comes through community, but it’s difficult to establish community among displaced persons.  For those seniors who move out of their homes, we need a better model than the expectation that “retirement” means living in another house or institution, this time protected, out-of-the-way.  A better vision of elderhood would be wisdom in action, else it become an unproductive review of memories, as Barnes’ character Webster discovered.  I envision a happier society if, somehow, our social system provided inherent routes for continuing action into old age, however limited the actions might be or become.