When did Elders become ” The Elderly?”

Story by Willard Washburn

 

Many of us have buried parents, family, and friends. We celebrate 40th or 50th high school reunions and mourn the loss of classmates we didn’t even know were gone. We approach an age when thoughts of mortality are also about our own. There are psychologists who have identified death as our biggest fear and underlying unconscious causal factor of many behaviors throughout our lives. We devote unfathomable resources and money to keeping people alive. There are medical protocols to ensure health service providers do everything they can to keep us alive, unless we have made legal provisions otherwise. Keeping people alive beyond when it is time to depart is for another discussion and not to be twisted into a justification to not provide safe and effective medical and personal care to elders.

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly illuminated many important matters, especially about ourselves, society, the nation, and the world, and yes, potentially the opportunity to see how all of life on the planet is interrelated and interdependent. The coronavirus effects expose the disparities in our society, including people who are in extended care facilities or elders in general. Notice the shift in language. Language matters because it conveys our values. We have the choice to see those who are growing older in “new” ways that are old ways for many who gathered around elders to listen and learn from them as they grew-up with their presence and tutelage. This difference is a way of life for Native Americans.

As we grow older we physically degenerate, no matter how devoted we may be to exercise. The mind is not immune to the aging process, yet, we continue “to see” from where we have been in relation to what is happening around us. I learned as much from my mother’s grace when she suffered from dementia as I did growing up with her and my father’s love & encouragement. Besides, just being together is what matters most. Why do we need to know what day it is when we are together or what we talked about last time? So we meet someone again that we knew before. Or reacquaint by reconstructing the relationship. Enjoy telling or hearing the story again. Is it our own fears about ourselves that compel us to bring elders into our world rather than understanding and continuing to relate and learn from theirs?

The “Aging & Saging” phenomenon speaks to how we continue to learn, including how to live with growing older. That is different, as we may remind millennial sons & daughters, than referring to us as “old”. So when did elders become “the elderly”? I’m sure there are those with more expertise to offer perspective on its origins and history, but it certainly seems evident in modern-day perspectives of Western originated societies. Sadly, it parallels how the “disadvantaged” perspective became the dominant educational paradigm and policy that contributed indelibly to the “other” language, phenomenon, and reference to people who are different from “what counts” in society and history. While perhaps not intended, dis-empowerment becomes the effect for far too many people, including elders.

Yet, what was it we said to our children at times or in thought about people not being smart and safe during the pandemic? “You know better.” And elders do, often by example. My wife and dear partner in life reminds us there are fewer days ahead of us than are behind us. We like to think there is a depth and lightness to our being, kinda like the glow of a beautiful sunset at the end of the gift of another day. Like life, beauty can take on such meaning as we grow older.

I am a hopeful realist about any and all that I share. My hope will remain with our younger people and how they can “learn something” from the wisdom of elders in the many forms it may take, as we also learn from them. Lastly, perhaps with some wisdom I may offer, the multifaceted aspects of loss inherent in the question posed is perhaps one of the greatest opportunities to learn and alter how we see and value each other, other forms of life, and the earth itself. Educational and human possibilities emerge in the dynamic of