While twice this week (here and here) we have discussed the argument for not assuming that old age is all about disease and debility, we need also to consider that however much elders are maligned by people who push the age=decline point of view, we do - like it or not - slow down as we age.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing and could be – if we lived in a better world – a manifestly good thing. Two thousand years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero had something to say about old age:
”It is not by muscle, speed or physical dexterity that great things are achieved but by reflection, force of character and judgment.
Too many people who like this quotation leave off the next sentence which I think is crucial to Cicero's point:
”In these qualities, old age is usually not...poorer, but is even richer.”
Western culture all but insists that once we retire from our jobs, careers, professions, etc. (whether by choice or force), we retire from life too as if, at that moment of giving up a paycheck, we lose all the knowledge and experience employers once paid us for.
But as Cicero explains, we have something that can be gained only by attaining old age: our judgment, earned from all the mistakes, all the failures and all the successes we have gathered throughout our lives.This is, Cicero tells us, a rich resource but it is one that goes unused because American life, institutions and government place no value on old people.
For several years there has been a growing movement to live mindfully, to spend more time being rather than doing, doing, doing which western culture so prizes.
I think that many people, as they enter elderhood, come naturally to this kind of thoughtfulness. That as our bodies begin to slow, we gradually transfer more of our attention to reflection, to concern for things outside ourselves and how we can contribute.
So the normal slowing of our bodies in old age should not be something that is lamented but instead is welcomed as an asset to be used for the overall good. Welcomed, that is, if we lived in such a world. Which we do not.
But we old people do not need to wait to be invited back into the cultural mainstream – it's not going to happen any time soon anyway. There are so many things we can do ourselves.
A personal example. Since last fall, I have been involved with a group that is creating a Village in my area that will, in time, make it much easier for people to grow old in their homes for much longer than now and in the past.
(This is a national movement that I have threatened to tell you about at least twice before and I will, I promise, do that soon.)
At a meeting one evening this week, we were setting up our first few committees, discussing what needs to be accomplished, how to go about it, where to get the information we need and what steps are next.
The room was awash in questions asked, answered or tabled for the time being; hands raised to volunteer for the committees; information traded; a whole lot of enthusiasm from a bunch of smart people eager to put our collective hundreds of years of experience to good use. And all of us 65 and older.
It is so exciting to be working with an outstanding group of elders committed to a grassroots project that will benefit old people for generations to come - something to achieve not with muscle, speed or dexterity but by reflection, thoughtfulness, force of character and judgment.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: Do You Remember Cousin Grace?