What Are Old Folks For?

Hank Mattimore
Reproduced with Permission

I picked up the book at the bookstore the other day and was astonished at the title "What Are Old People For?" What kind of title is that, I thought to myself. How come they don't write a book about "What Young People are For?" or What Are Irish Americans For?" Why should old folks be singled out? Aren't we all in this journey of life together? Are seniors the only group of people who have to justify their existence?

As it turned out, the book I held in my hand wasn't picking on older folks at all. Quite the opposite. Written by a doctor named William Thomas, the book is all about changing our obsession with youth and beginning to see the value in the wisdom and perspective older people are capable of contributing to society.

In Thomas's view, the older generation does not get a lot of respect in our culture. Older equals doddering, hard of hearing, out of touch and sexless. We are tolerated because of the money we may leave our kids some day, or because we're a great source of all those dementia jokes or because it's comforting for the middle-aged generation to have a group of folks older than they are. "To be old in contemporary society," says the author, "is to inhabit a ghetto without borders."

That may be true but it is also true that sometimes the ghetto we construct is of our own making. My sister-in-law who had flaming red hair as a youngster used to be labeled as "hot headed" by the adults in her life. "Oh, you know those red heads. They have an out of control temper." After a while, she told me that she began to act out their expectations of her. "As long as I had the name, I figured I might as well play the game."

Older people can fall into that trap, too. We can find ourselves accepting the stereotypes society has manufactured for us. Blondes are beautiful but dumb. Black men are great athletes. Old people are out of it.

Dag Hammarskjold, the legendary humanist and former Secretary General of the United Nations, was fond of saying "The less I let others determine my worth for me, the more I own myself. The less I obsess about my self, the more I am myself."

We do not do ourselves or society as a whole any favor by allowing ourselves to be treated with a benign condescension by others. It's shortsighted for a younger generation not to pay attention to the life experience of its older people. It's worse when we allow ourselves to be characterized as irrelevant and don't have the moxie to speak up. We diminish both ourselves and our world by our silence.

We are the "elders," a term worthy of respect. There is a purpose for each of the stages of our lives. Want to know what older people are for?" We're the bearers of tradition, the tellers of stories, the appreciators of life, the grandparents and conveyers of unconditional love to children, the believers in a power beyond our selves. We speak for kindness and goodness and compassion and yearn for a better world for those who come after us. Never let it be said that we allow a younger generation to define us by our gray hairs or wrinkles. We wear our wrinkles and our age spots proudly. They are our medals of honor, our purple hearts, won on the battlefields of life.