Why We Need to Listen to the Elderly - Pacific Standard

Why We Need to Listen to the Elderly

They have a lot to say, and they're not going away any time soon.
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(Photo: KonstantinChristian/Shutterstock)

(Photo: KonstantinChristian/Shutterstock)

I knew only one of my grandparents: three of them died before I was born, but my maternal grandmother lived into her seventies and I knew her for two decades. I remember her with great joy and profound gratitude, but I also remember her as old.

She was, in the way grandparents are meant to be, a living encyclopedia of years I’d only ever read about in history books. She grew up during the Great Depression and could recall in rich detail when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for humankind; she could remember using outhouses and riding to town by horse-drawn wagon. Her hobbies in the years I knew her were playing bingo and looking through photographs of her seven children and 21 grandchildren; in my lifetime, she had knees replaced and arteries cleared, walked first with a cane, and then with a walker.

I have photographs of her, but also, because a few years before she died I bought a digital camera that was capable of making short videos, a little film of her talking to me. It’s only 20 seconds long, but it can, no matter how many times I watch it, bring me to tears. There’s the excitement in my voice as I start recording too soon: “OK, go!” And then her hurried tenderness because I wasn’t sure how long a recording I could make with the small memory card: “Casey, when you go to college, don’t forget that you have a grandmother that loves you. You be sure and write to her, and remember to pray for her. I love you very much.”

Older Americans are one of the fastest growing demographics in our country: Baby Boomers began turning 65 in 2011, and by 2030 older Americans will number 72 million, nearly 20 percent of the total population. In a culture so obsessed with youth, it is easy to underestimate this demographic because they are so often invisible.

I did write her, several times a week, and called her every Sunday for the years of college that I spent a few hundred miles away from home. She was, especially when I was surrounded almost exclusively by peers, a link to the kind of experience and wisdom that often seemed in short supply. I thought of her so many times last week while reading Roger Angell’s extraordinary New Yorker essay "This Old Man."

Angell is 93 years old, and he writes just brilliantly about what it's like to be old. There are the expected health troubles (arthritis, angioplasty, macular degeneration, and shingles), but also endless delights, chief among them, sex (“More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are.”) and intellect (“I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today.”). Every word of Angell’s essay should be read not once, but twice, and not only by his peers, but especially by those of us who are younger.

OLDER AMERICANS ARE ONE of the fastest growing demographics in our country: Baby Boomers began turning 65 in 2011, and by 2030 older Americans will number 72 million, nearly 20 percent of the total population. In a culture so obsessed with youth, it is easy to underestimate this demographic because they are so often invisible. While the median age of America’s newspaper columnists is 60, those writers are rarely writing about their own lives: they’re pontificating about the young or prognosticating about the future.

Yet the American Association of Retired Persons produces the most popular magazine in the country, reaching 22 million members. And you wouldn’t know it from the Millennials who populate most shows and sitcoms, but the median age of television audience members is now 54. Nielsen data connects these aging audiences with changing advertising trends, forecasting that by 2017 these over-5o viewers will possess 70 percent of the country’s disposable income.

There are monetary and moral reasons we should cease marginalizing our seniors, but Roger Angell’s essay is a beautiful reminder of what wisdom and wit we lose by relegating older persons to the occasional story about health care, obituary pages, and the infrequent expose of elder care. It is not only what these men and women have to tell us about being old, but what they can teach us about being young.

To be old is not so much to have left youth behind, but to be in a continual state of revisiting it. Consider the still syndicated show Golden Girls. Produced for seven seasons, it focused not only on the daily life of retirees, but on the difficulties of divorce and widowhood, the realities of friendship and courtship, as well as the joys of communal living.

Decades later Golden Girls is still popular with older audiences, but younger ones, too. Like Angell’s essay, the adventures of Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia are not just previews of what awaits us in our later decades, but reviews of the ones we’re living now, whether it’s the first or the fourth.

Much of our conversation about diversity neglects these older persons, even while ageism becomes more and more insidious. Discrimination and neglect not only deprive us, but are deleterious for them: one in six seniors, for instance, is threatened by hunger, and even with Medicare many seniors still spend large portions of their Social Security benefits on health care.

I think of that moment in the film when my grandmother said simply: “don’t forget that you have a grandmother.” It is so easy to forget these men and women when they age from the center of public life to its margins, from the front page to the back pages of our newspapers, from the stars of popular culture to supporting roles, but our lives and our society are poorer if we do.

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