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Older Adults in America

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.

Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow's picture

About the Blogger

Director of Spiritual Care

Sara Paasche-Orlow is the Director of Spiritual Care at Hebrew SeniorLife. In this position, she established the nation's only Jewish geriatric clinical pastoral education (CPE) program accredited by ACPE, Inc. and has placed chaplains and CPE students throughout the HSL system. Rabbi Sara was ordained in the Conservative Movement at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has focused her work on serving Jews of all backgrounds and denominations.

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My 92-year-old dad forwarded this article to his children, his wife, and his wife's daughter. "I believe the thoughts expressed in this essay speak for themselves," he said. I disagreed. Indeed, coming from him, I found much in this essay/post with which I disagreed and/or to which I objected. So . . . perhaps for the sake of inspiring some further/multigenerational discussion, let me share here what I (just) wrote in response to my dad. [NOTE: I attempted to format this using HTML; I attempted to include carriage returns. Nothing worked. Forgive the "mess." Hopefully the meaning comes through despite the lack of formatting!] Dear Dad: I would like to say. . . • I agree that “we” (i.e., all of us who are children of someone—which means all human beings) ought to o honor our parents; o avoid marginalizing or alienating people; o avoid “focus[ing] inordinately” or “exclusive[ly]” on “children, teenagers and young adults.” • I agree that it makes sense for each of us to do what we can to “[guard] life (whatever the author means by such a term; I assume she means something like “pursue life-affirming goals”—or something like that) such that each of us can continue to live meaningful lives up until the very end.” Now, having indicated those premises with which I agree, let me note that . . . • I disagree with the author’s premise that seeking to “hide gray” (for example; or “nip-and-tuck” as she also mentions) is a matter of o “denying our own aging process” or o “undermine[s] . . . [t]he veneration that our tradition gives to [older people]” or o “creates a false hierarchy of youth and communicates that those who are older are less valued.” Indeed, I would like to argue that “hiding the gray,” as it were—or taking other steps to “turn back the clock” (or, for example, get one’s teeth realigned, or use technology—hearing aids—to hear more clearly, or have surgery to remove cataracts, etc., etc.)—. . . all of these things are methods by which we, individually “can continue to [seek to] live meaningful lives up until the very end.” • I disagree with the author’s implicit premise that it is initially, primarily, or solely the fault of the young[er] generation[s] “that people over 85 are frequently marginalized, lonely and alienated from the larger community.” I believe much of the marginalization and alienation is a fault of choices the over-85s have brought upon themselves. • I disagree with the author’s suggestion that “we” (interesting: who is the “we”?) “tend to focus inordinately on children, teenagers and young adults.” • I disagree with the author’s premise that, somehow, it is the responsibility of the-community-in-general to o “[design] and [build] affordable supportive housing integrated into our neighborhoods,” o ensure that “multigenerational communal life bubbl[es] all around”; o “integrat[e elders] into our [communal] lives”; o create “foster care program[s] for elders”; o “adopt” elders; o etc. • I believe o These things that the author wants to place as responsibilities upon the community-at-large are, in fact, the responsibilities of individual families and the members of those families. o Rather than “adoption” and “foster care” being the primary and first-line “response” to the “need” she has identified, all of these issues should first be addressed by families. And, finally, o They require the active, positive cooperation and participation of both “elders” and “youngers.” And having said all of that, I wonder what brings this up in your mind and heart at this time? • Are you feeling marginalized? Lonely? Alienated? • Do you miss “multigenerational communal life bubbling all around”? • Do you want to be integrated, somehow, into your family’s (and families’) communal lives? Supposing your answers are “yes” to all of these last few questions, let me ask what you–as a vital component in your family’s life—are willing to do (as I suggested above) to actively and positively cooperate and participate in the lives of your nuclear—much less your extended—family? Indeed, what have you done in the past to build the kinds of relationships that would integrate you into your family’s (and families’) communal lives? What have you done in the way of generating “bubbling” “multigenerational communal life” in your family (nuclear as well as extended)? I ask these questions because I face them myself in a very existential way almost every day . . . as my granddaughters come to my house with their mother (almost every day). I am always torn—always torn: Do I continue to interact with my computer . . . or do I leave my computer, get down on the floor, and read to (or with) my granddaughters? . . . Do I continue to do my work (or whatever-it-is that interests me at the moment) . . . or do I seek, fully, to participate in the (often, to my mind) less-than-brilliantly-engaging conversation that has to do with mundane issues? “Bubbling” “multigenerational communal life” involves such—very mundane—matters as giving birthday and holiday gifts (and not relying on your wife to do the gift-giving for you), speaking kindly to your wife and giving her not only what is her due, but gifts as well. It involves interacting with your wife in matters that concern her . . . and not maintaining your focus on your computer screen. It involves actually interacting with your kids (and grandkids—not to mention great-grandkids) when you are in their presence . . . and not “using” them to establish a launching pad so you can go visit the widow of a distant relative you haven't spoken with in 40 years, but who, you know, happens to live within 20 miles of where your children happen to reside. It involves engaging in conversation with your kids while they are with you . . . rather than withdrawing into your own cocoon. . . . But you don’t need me to tell you these things. So. You have sent us this article. You said you “believe the thoughts . . . expressed in the . . . essay . . . speak for themselves.” “Interesting” that you would say such a thing. What are you wanting to say? Are you saying you want to change something? Assuming you are, I would be interested to hear what you would like to change. Thanks, Dad! Love, [Your Son]
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Brightflash. We're glad it provoked such a thoughtful dialogue between you and your father.
I am a senior (68) and a nurse in gerontology. I agree with the basic premise of the article; that the overall youth culture that we live in (many decades old itself) and the near demand to continue to look young leads to ageism in all its forms. I decide and re-decide on things like hair and makeup, glasses, styles, always keeping in mind that I want to look good but also to accept the aging process gracefully and set an example for my children and others. I have let my hair go grey and keep a youthful, modern cut. I need glasses all the time now and have chosen a current, "edgy" frame that my daughter in law say is very "in". I have no desire to nip or tuck anything but rather to keep as fit as I can, which is a big enough job. I loved the articles reference to community and intergenerational living. My husband and I are part of a "cohousing group" seeking these things. I know they will happen and hope it will be in time for us to fully participate. Thanks!
Thanks for sharing with us, Judy!

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