What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World

William Thomas is the most optimistic advocate for aging I have yet to encounter. He believes in the power of the oldest of the old, and has called that phase of our lives “elderhood”, the natural successor to adulthood.

Old age has richness and complexity that, when appreciated, provide a powerful counterweight to the measurable, progressive, steady decline in bodily functions. In old age, the body instructs the mind in patience and forbearance while the mind tutors the body in creativity and flexibility.

History & Culture of Aging

What Are Old People For? is Thomas’ treatise on old age, beginning with a brief history of the hunter-gatherers and continuing thru to old age’s transformation by modern culture. This was the first time I heard the word “senescence“, defined as “growing into old age”, as compared with adolescence, which is “growing into adulthood”.

The upper limit of longevity may be defined by human genetics, but the experience of living into old age is defined almost exclusively by the customs and mores of one’s culture. An individual’s ability to live a long and bountiful life depends, most of all, on society’s aptitude for making such a life possible.

If you take a look at the various media cultural artifacts (television, magazines, newspapers and the like), you cannot escape the many advertisements for anti-aging products and multiple medications, all being marketed to a very large baby boomer generation that has fully entered adulthood.

Not only are adults impacted by this swath of advertising, but there is a huge trickle down effect, whereupon youngsters and teenagers are inundated with messages about staying young. Modern culture does not embrace the distinctive lines of age – the wrinkles that appear as a banner to living long. There is a huge market for medicine and medical procedures designed to eradicate any banners of aging.

Long-Term Care Environments

From discussing culture, Thomas goes on to describe the “plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom” that accompany oldsters who are relocated, by choice or against their will, to “long-term care environments”. Rather than sit by the sidelines, William Thomas and his wife, Judith Meyers-Thomas, have created an approach to eldercare living called The Eden Alternative. You can read more about it here or listen to this 2002 PBS NewsHour interview: Nursing Home Alternative.

Thomas quotes a passage from Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums, where Goffman lists five traits that define a “total institution”. It is a scathing description that, as Thomas notes, can be equally applied to life in prisons, state psychiatric hospitals and concentration camps. Alas, concludes Thomas, this list is also applicable to our long-term care facilities.

While the intention of these organizations is clearly different from that of penitentiaries, they share a common, rigid division of people into the guardians and the guarded, the therapists and the sick, the staff and the residents.

My Dad lived in assisted living, followed by a nursing home, for a combined seven plus years. My Mom was hospitalized several times within the span of six months, followed by a three week stint in a rehab facility, followed by round-the-clock care at home for several weeks. I know first hand of what Thomas describes.

But all does not have to be glum! The full title of Thomas’ book is What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World. Stay tuned for that second part!

for more on William H Thomas:

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