We fall into the trap of tying dying to death. We see our elderly citizens as almost dead rather than still alive. Society says it values experience, wisdom, patience, having perspective when dealing with problems. Old folks have these in spades. They’ve seen more, loved more, lost more, and have been run through life’s trials to the point where their minds have become valuable assets. I propose it is up to us to get the most out of these assets while simultaneously listening to their wishes as well.
Whether it be interacting with children, performing, writing or just being helpful neighbors- there are people who have much to share. Their physical frailty and fatigue get too much attention. Just because an elderly guest has to leave a conference early doesn’t mean the content of her speech was any less impactful. With so much focus today on data, why not put the elderly through the numbers too. Let’s see what they can offer us. Let’s see what we can do for them. Let’s find a balance that adds value to both parties.
My book club here in Shenzhen, China recently finished Dr. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. He points out that many older folks crave independence and strive to keep able bodied. They want to do as they please. After decades of hard work, sacrifice, and learning about oneself, the sudden availability of so much free time seems a terrible gift to waste. We as the younger majority should do more to allow the elderly the freedom of choice to live out their final years as they wish.
Too many of us keep them at arm’s length, or force grandchild supervision duties upon them. If they live too far away we don’t visit and if we invite them to live with us, they have no peers or friends of their own. Why don’t we care to ask what they’d like? Just as Del Webb’s Sun City promoted senior entertainment instead of convenient death, the future surely will allow seniors to interact with one another instead of merely reliving the good ole days.
People will recall that the Black Mirror episode, San Junipero, gave seniors a very enticing option no matter if they were living at home with their kids or stuck in a hospital bed. Possibly we’ll all end up hooked on some new technology designed for seniors. Remember the crew of the Axiom from Wall-E was addicted to their hover chairs originally made for humans in wheelchairs. Maybe both young and old will live in a San Junipero world sooner than we think. But until that day comes, let’s try to interact more with the elderly. Let’s bring them into the conversation. And let’s remember how much they have to share.