Show respect for elders: You may become one

November 05, 2007|By Gordon Livingston

Many years ago, I had just returned from service in Vietnam, disillusioned by what I had seen there. I began to speak out against the war and was invited to be on a panel of veterans at Parkville High School. Those were disputatious times, and when I finished speaking, I was loudly booed by members of the student body.

Fast-forward 37 years and there comes an invitation to speak about the problems of aging at the Parkville Senior Center. When I told my wife of my long-ago experience at the high school, she said, "Great. It's probably the same people. They can boo you all over again." If it was the same folks, the years had thankfully mellowed them.

The indignities of age are inflicted upon us slowly, like the gradual change in the seasons - a nearly imperceptible shortening of the days that leads inexorably to the cold darkness of winter. Unlike the rhythms of the earth, however, the descent into old age is not cyclical but unidirectional. Spring will not come again.

It is little wonder that we fight against our decline as hard as we can. The available weapons - surgery, Botox, cosmetics - extract from us as a nation about $150 billion a year, slightly more than the amount budgeted in 2008 for the "global war on terror." Like that struggle, the battle against aging is driven by fear.

Most people think that dread of getting old is a reflection of our fear of death. But our trepidation is more than that. It is an acknowledgment of what comes before death and is in some ways worse: We become irrelevant, sick, marginalized. Death may even come to seem a kind of release.

This process of decline varies from person to person. If we remain relatively healthy, we may find temporary reprieve. If we have sufficient money, this can insulate us for a while from the loss of personal significance. If we are lucky enough to have a hobby or talent that can be indulged in the later stages of life, this helps as well. But the absurd discrimination against the aged (we all end up, finally, being prejudiced against ourselves) can be seen in a multitude of areas.

To take a single example: When is the last time that you saw someone over 65 as a Jeopardy! contestant? Do you believe that there is no one in that age group who could compete with younger adults? Or, why don't they have a version of the program for seniors, as they once did? They have one for kids, teenagers, college students, even celebrities.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book. As a result, I started getting invitations to speak at places such as the Parkville Senior Center. In spite of the fact that some of the chapter titles were unflattering to seniors ("The problems of the elderly are frequently serious but seldom interesting"), I have found myself exhorting people in my age group to fight against the dying of the light. Because this is what I believe we must do.

In this youth-obsessed culture, with its narrow definitions of beauty, the aged are systematically devalued and ignored. Some of this we bring on ourselves by complaining about the inevitable depredations of age. It is as if when we need people the most, we push them away by becoming boring, even to ourselves.

As we grow older, we bear the burdens of a society in which we see few flattering images of ourselves and get lots of messages that we should disappear. Well, there are, it seems, increasing numbers of us around - and more on the way.

The baby boomers are becoming eligible for Social Security, and by 2020, there will be 55 million people over 65. So how about a little respect? You're going to be one of us before you know it. That wind-rush past your ears is called time.

Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is the author of "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart." His e-mail is

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