The Honor and Toil of Growing Old

Bringing hope and action to the second half of life

| October 4, 2007


In a few short minutes, the 37-year-old writer Jason Wilson was turned into an old man. He had his shoes filled with corn kernels to simulate the pain old people feet while walking. His knees were tightly bandaged to mimic arthritis. And he was fitted with special glasses that mimic the effect of cataracts. After struggling through his new elderly life for about an hour, Wilson realized: "It really sucks."

Wilson's experience, recounted in the Smart Set , was part of a workshop called Xtreme Aging Training that aims to help people sympathize with the elderly. Wilson listened to fellow workshop participants describe what they thought aging would be like. Most of what he heard was a list of complaints: "gray hair; wrinkles; pain; joint replacement; cataracts; dementia; false teeth; loneliness; car accidents." These still-young folks expected to define their later years solely through misfortunes. But that view misses many important elements of aging. After the participants finished listing problems, someone finally piped up with the observation that the elderly can be wise. In spite of the litany of physical ailments, wisdom could give the waning years meaning.

Finding a more meaningful and satisfying old age isn't just a matter of personal fulfillment. The September/October issue of Utne Reader reported that as the demographic traffic jam known as the baby boom edges toward retirement, by 2030, one in four Americans will be over the age of sixty. And these baby boomers are going to need to find something to do. Some commentators imagine doomsday scenarios, where ranks of selfish boomers sit idly by, feeding off the productivity of the young. But retirement -- or "post-career" life, as some call it -- need not be a dull wasteland. Ideally, the ranks of boomers will share their experiences with the next generation, and create what career coach Richard Leider calls "a new kind of wisdom." Instead of shipping elders off to retirement homes -- where there knowledge gets put in permanent storage -- younger people can learn from their elders' wisdom.

Some people are already taking concrete steps to help the elderly stay active. In a column for Tikkun , Barry Barkan writes of his life's work -- helping people overcome the misery and meaninglessness of aging in America. Barkan worked with one elderly person who said, "You see that piece of furniture over there? I'm like a piece of furniture."



To remedy the malaise drifting over the second half of people's lives, Barkan started the Live Oak Project back in 1977. Through community meetings focused on discussion and song, Barkan has helped residents in old folks homes make their voices heard again. Once they've raised their voices, the elders' wisdom can help soothe society's short-sighted spiral of self-destruction. Far from being glorified ottomans who send Christmas cards to their grandkids and burden their families financially, the elderly could use the free time of retirement to share their wisdom with the community at large and ultimately help change the world for the better.

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