Learning from Elders

By , June 6, 2015

If you wish to live a self-reliant lifestyle on any level, you must be proactive about aging. Denying the aging process guarantees failure—it’s that simple. A lifetime of effort toward self-reliance can be wasted if one fails to prepare for growing old.

Unfortunately, aging can be a debilitating process despite one’s best efforts. However, the negative effects of aging can be mitigated somewhat; one would be wise to take action to ensure, to the best of one’s abilities, that one remains independent as one ages.

The good news is that, as a result of the rapidly aging “baby boomer” population, the array of resources is increasing rapidly. One of the best resources for learning how to age well is our elders. Experience is the best educator, and our elders have much to teach us by their examples, both good and bad.

In our age-denying youth cult society, we tend to disrespect the elderly. We treat “senior citizens” as something other—foreigners who aren’t like us, a special interest group with their own focus, concerns, and cares that have little or nothing to do with us.

In truth, they’re just like us, just older. What they are, we aspire to become. What they are facing, we will face, too—if we should live so long. They have done just that: lived so long. They’re doing something right—it’s a good idea to find out what it is!

We’ve forgotten what the rest of humanity has known forever: the wisdom of our communities lies in our elders. They should be listened to, learned from, respected. More to this essay’s point, there are still a few people alive who experienced the Great Depression. Many of the current generation of “elderly” were children then, and may not have paid much attention to the day-to-day struggle, but their parents surely taught them self-reliance as they addressed the household issues of the day.

Also, for many Americans, times didn’t get a whole lot better when someone official declared the Great Depression ended! Anyone concerned with thriving in an economic downturn should take advantage of firsthand or close proximity knowledge our elders offer, rather than trying to figure it out on one’s own.

The first step toward tapping into this reservoir of knowledge is to talk to parents and relatives, or older friends and neighbors.

If your parents and older relatives are no longer available to learn from, and/or if you have no elderly friends or neighbors, you can establish relationships with elders in your own community. This can be done simply by visiting the elderly, particularly at your local senior center, nursing, or assisted living home. Develop good relations with seniors at all levels of mobility and disability, and the staffs that serve them. Learn from their lives and their stories.

In our youth-based society, elders are often shunted aside, marginalized, institutionalized, ignored. An uncomfortable majority of elderly citizens are lonely. They’re waiting to welcome someone like you—pleasant, sincere, respectful, and interested in people. You can learn important life lessons while forging intergenerational links, which strengthen community. By enriching your own life, you will enrich the lives of others.

By becoming a part of an elder community, you’ll likely gain access to other aging resources. Most nursing homes offer programs that strengthen and improve elderly health and well being: balance, coordination, cardiovascular health, diet, and more. Observe, and, if you can, participate in sessions! Many of the activities, particularly in nursing homes, may be extremely rudimentary. If so, extrapolate the techniques to your strength and agility levels later.

If you visit the elderly in these communities, remember these points:

Develop relationships. Don’t just show up and start questioning people! Become a loyal friend. If you’re going to do this just to get information, it’s better not to do it at all.
Listen. Ask questions that encourage your friends to talk about their experiences. Don’t spend time talking about you, unless people are genuinely interested.
Be patient and respectful. Poor hearing or slow speech don’t indicate lack of intelligence. Many elderly people are losing their abilities—a frustrating, frightening process. Don’t make it any worse for them.
Be vigilant. Watch for signs of fatigue and flagging interest. Be aware of staff movements and schedules. Don’t overstay your welcome or interfere with routines.
Don’t patronize. People are people, whatever their age. Always respect the dignity of others. You might be doing them a service by visiting them, or you might not.
Keep promises! If you say you’ll come back, make sure you do. If you can’t, call them or the facility staff. Explain your absence and apologize.

Finally, if you’re approaching “the senior years,” drop the attitude that you’re too young to be at a senior center! We all harbor the fervent hope that we’ll eventually reach extreme old age. Learn how to age with style and dignity while you can. You’ll find many role models in your community if you take the time and effort to find them.

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