The Voice of Experience: Are today’s seniors honoured or invisible?

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In Portland, Ore., a senior person can buy an all-day transit pass for $2 and travel anywhere the train/bus/streetcar system goes. On the ticket it says: “Honored Citizen 1 Day”. Nice, wouldn’t you say? The part about being honoured.

Old age means different things to different societies. The Chinese and Greeks revere their aging population. In First Nations cultures, elders are expected to pass down their knowledge and experience to the youth. In Korea, families put on large parties for people turning 60 or 70; when a person reaches 70 the celebration is known by a Korean word meaning “old and rare”. (I can hear certain family members chuckling over that one.)

But even in those cultures an increasing aging population is becoming a challenge. I read that Japan wants to take on more foreign workers to care for the elderly. China’s tradition of caring for aging parents is confronted with improved life expectancy and the burden on a generation that is the result of the one-child policy. Nursing homes are now a more accepted option.

Our western culture celebrates youth to incredible lengths. Even older models in magazines are in “zoomer” form. Zoomer magazine (philosophy: embrace life with gusto) focuses its articles on people 45-70 — that’s quite a spread. Is old now really younger than we thought? The magazine will tell us how to travel with grandchildren, how to buy the appropriate wine glasses, how to manage personal finances, how to find the best beaches in the world, how to stay “hot”. How to do it all while we still can.

Nothing wrong with that, except that we are not all healthy and/or wealthy.

How we grow older has much to do with maintenance. A friend recently said that maintenance takes a lot of time out of a day — not just exercising a body so it can keep moving, but maintaining confidence, fighting against being humdrum, retaining a sense of esteem and relevance. It’s almost a catch-22 situation. We could work at something, even part time. Work brings a sense of purpose but we can’t work in the usual sense and, besides, we need the time we used to spend working for the much-needed maintenance.

The focus on youth becomes a problem when it impinges on how seniors see themselves and how they are treated by younger people. It becomes a problem when the privileges of age are questioned and seniors are considered a drain on the system. After all, they are no longer the movers and shakers.

Grey hair can bring with it a creepy feeling of invisibility. I’ve heard this expressed many times by both women and men. Brings out the fighting spirit, doesn’t it?

Scenario: I am waiting in an out-of-town dress store for the 20-year-old clerk to process my purchase. She hasn’t noticed me standing in front of the desk. She is paying attention instead to two young women in conversation about a boyfriend issue. Very important topic, I know. She’s not being intentionally rude. I believe she really does not see me; I have merged with the wrinkled garments on the racks (wrinkles being in fashion for clothing these days).

This is not an insurmountable problem. A sense of humour helps a lot. I thank my parents for passing on their admirable ability to laugh at themselves and find comedy in the everyday. As much as I’d like to reach into the granny bag and pull out an invective-laden jolt to hurl at this young woman, it isn’t going to happen.

For one thing the wit is waning, and at times like this words get balled up in ire and imagined slights. Being nasty only widens the generation gap. Being nasty brings regret and required apologies all around — a state not worthy of an “honoured” citizen.

Age brings with it adaptability and, certainly, forbearance.

Betsy Brierley lives beside Kootenay Lake. She used to write for the Advance a long time ago. The Voice of Experience is co-ordinated by the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.