The fifth commandment instructs us to “honor your mother and your father.” Last time I checked, there is no social commandment instructing our elders to hide their gray. The veneration that our tradition gives to a person with gray hair is undermined by a nip-and-tuck culture. People in large numbers persist in trying to mask the natural effects of aging, which creates a false hierarchy of youth and communicates that those who are older are less valued.
It’s time we got over it. The statistics are quite clear: We are living in a time when the oldest in our society are the fastest-growing portion of the population. And yet it is also clear that people over 85 are frequently marginalized, lonely and alienated from the larger community. Significant change is needed.
We tend to focus inordinately on children, teenagers and young adults. They are presented as our future and our continuity. But these populations should not be granted the exclusive focus of our collective energy and creativity. Ensuring our future — the future of every person reading this article — means guarding life such that each of us can continue to live meaningful lives up until the very end.
There are some obvious challenges we must overcome to help seniors remain vital members of our communities. Among them are improved access to senior health care, accessible communal organizations, supportive housing and support for caregivers. People should be able to choose to live in a community where they can receive supportive services, maintain friendships, have a rich spiritual life and easy access to health care and health maintenance.
How do we do this as a community? We should be designing and building affordable supportive housing integrated into our neighborhoods, with health services easily accessible and multigenerational communal life bubbling all around. We honor our elders by integrating them into our lives.
More than 50 years ago my grandfather, Dr. Milton I. Levine, wrote a letter to The New York Times outlining a foster care program for elders. His idea remains relevant today: Adopt an elder. Learn their story.
But to truly see the elders in our midst, we also need to stop denying our own aging process. Young and old—we are all in this together. It’s time to see the beauty and value in each individual regardless of age.
A version of this blog originally appeared as an editorial in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Read that version here.