serene ambition™

transforming the culture of aging

Old Folks’ Day

Posted by Jim Selman on 10/1/06


Happy IDOP everyone! Oh, you didn’t know that the United Nations implemented October 1st as the International Day of Older Persons 16 years ago? Well, it’s true. Lots of information available online about the UN Program on Ageing. The opening remark by the Secretary General pretty well sums up what it is all about.

“I am only one of 600 million persons in the world over the age of 60. As people across the globe come to live increasingly longer lives, our entire human family has a stake in encouraging and easing a productive, active and healthy ageing process. The whole world stands to gain from an empowered older generation, with the potential to make tremendous contributions to the development process and to the work of building more productive, peaceful and sustainable societies.”

The scale and scope of this day’s focus at the United Nations underscores the growing awareness of Western societies’ cultural devaluing and outright discrimination against older human beings. Perhaps worse than discrimination is indifference, a marginalization of who we are and what we have to contribute. The agenda of the day includes lots of talk about ‘mainstreaming’ older persons—formulating social policies that take into account issues of older human beings. It is all good news for shining a light on unenlightened institutions and cultural blind spots.

The statistics are also interesting—predictions that almost 2 billion folks worldwide will be living past 60 by 2050 and an unprecedented number will be over 70, 80, and even 100. Given today’s archetypes of older persons, it isn’t surprising that this is seen as a looming problem of enormous proportions. Those numbers suggest between a third and a fourth of mankind will be living in a state which is normally viewed as being one of isolation, decline, loss and failing health. In the face of this kind of cultural horizon, is it any wonder that so many people become deeply resigned, give up and do their best to cope and be as comfortable as possible until the final loss—of life itself?

But there are two aspects to this demographic wave that aren’t being acknowledged in the learned papers and that go largely unnoticed in the growing media penchant for ‘Baby Boomer’ stories.

The first is that there is something disquieting about turning a generation of people as large as the global ‘Baby Boom’ into constituents, target markets, objects of political currency and problems to be solved. The conversation seems to put us in the same category as the ‘war on cancer’ or teen pregnancy or global warming. Being old isn’t in itself a disease to be treated. And while we share many concerns, we’ve always shared concerns and don’t need to be put under microscopes to be studied, analyzed and debated.

Why should anyone need to negotiate for policies to justify dignity, the right to earning a living or participating in any aspect of society? While it is coming to that, I suggest that we need to step forward and be responsible for the society as a whole, keep attention on the deeper underlying cultural, spiritual and philosophical problems that we’ve played some role in creating and maintaining over the past 60 years. Rather than lobbying for pro-aging policy, we might vote for leaders who are simply pro-human and have the courage to campaign for and promote policies that bring us closer together rather than further fragment us and drive us apart.

The second aspect of the aging phenomenon is more subtle, but perhaps more profound. At least in the United States, it is fairly obvious that the ‘Baby Boom generation’ has constituted a critical mass of people in the context of the society as a whole and has more or less defined the conversation for the whole society. When the Boomers were children, everything from TV to city planning became about suburbs, stationwagons and corner schoolhouses. As teens, we brought forth rock ’n’ roll and as we grew older we celebrated the ‘Age of Aquarius’ and saw the birth of civil rights, feminism, and the Internet. We’ve also seen our generation become split along liberal / conservative lines and can all witness the struggle to find common ground on most areas of social, environmental and economic policies.

What happens when this demographic ‘critical mass’ reaches the age at which most people become resigned—when they all lose contact with any possibility of progress and change? Will it mean that our society as a whole will lose touch with our power to create our reality and our world? Will resignation replace the American Dream? Will the world enter into a hiatus for one or two generations until the ‘old’ die and the ‘young’ again have the space to create their vision? And when they do, will they create a world in which aging isn’t a problem, but a natural part of living that people look forward to? Can they imagine a world in which old and young are different sides of the same coin—older AND younger instead of older OR younger?

At the end of today, the International Day of Older People, the world will be pretty much the same as it was yesterday. But perhaps, if enough of us wake up to the occasion and embrace the possibility of universal empowerment, then today will be the first day in bringing forth a transformation of social consciousness that will have ‘who we are’ be more important than ‘how old we are’.

Have a good IDOP…

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Old Folks’ Day”

  1. Jim L. said

    I think the Asian cultures reverence for their elders is an interesting thing. And it’s something missing from our culture. The western way now is to warehouse old people in seniors’ homes. The Asian way is for family to care for their parents. It’s a deeply ingrained cultural thing but it also has very practical purposes. It gives old people some security. It also helps solve the daycare problem because grandparents often look after the school age kids while parents work. So they have closer families and less need for both daycare and old folks homes.

  2. Keith said

    Came here via Dons site. I agree with Jims sentiments. Apparently I’m “too young” at 70 to go into an “Old Peoples Home”, so I live alone, even though the going is tough. I never feel secure. Most times I feel lonely. I have family, but they never visit or help, and I have given up on them. I used to phone regularly, but then I realised that nobody actually rang me to see if I was OK. What has happened to family values now? Everybody seems to be concerned only with themselves, and spend all their time chasing after money and material things.

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