Intentionally Unreasonable: The tao of old

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Please stop reading this column if you’re 49 years old or younger. Really.

If you’re not a card-carrying member of AARP, then this column probably isn’t for you, so just flip the page or click away and you’re welcome to come back in a couple of weeks and I’ll be here with open and ageless columnist arms.

This weekend I accepted a truth – one that I’ve resisted for many years in favor of a combination of denial and delusion. I am now “old.”

For context, I was born the same year as Kevin Spacey, the first Barbie Doll, Fred Couples, Lester Holt, Alaska (as a U.S. state), John McEnroe, Marie Osmond, the first paper copy machine (Xerox 914), Magic Johnson, Simon Cowell, Hawaii (as a U.S. state), and Jason Alexander.

You see, we’re all very, very old. For added dread, it was also the year “the music died” (plane-crash death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper).

When you’re a kid, teenager or young adult in your twenties, the label “young” is constantly affixed to your identity. Then in your thirties and forties, you enter a somewhat vague life period where you’re not really young, and you’re not really old, and we call that middle age.

Now, I am an old man and I accept that reality.

For me, the transition from being carded in a bar or restaurant (which ended for me years ago) to now having to show my AARP card for the 10 percent discount at IHOP is fully complete. If life were a round of golf, I’m now playing the back nine and I’m fine with that. Who doesn’t enjoy a good pancake discount?

Until recently, I failed to grasp and accept my age in the context of mortality or relatively. Why? Because our society teaches us to resist the process of aging and the natural journey and destination associated with growing old. An adjunct truth is that we’re also deathly afraid of the unavoidable reality of death.

How can we respect the process (and result) of aging as a healthy and positive transition without treating and accepting death as a natural element of life itself? There is a clear correlation between societies that respect and care for their elders and those who also treat the inevitability of death with a healthy dose of practical acceptance.

In America we do neither well.

Instead of celebration and respect, we often denigrate and dismiss the “old” members of our society who have contributed the most and possess the greatest accumulated wisdom. Too often we worship the cult of youth as representing the value of vitality, and we dismiss the experiences and wisdom that can only be acquired through significant time, experience and insight born from an advanced age.

Like much of our disposable consumer economy, we tend to throw away things, including old people, when they stop serving what is considered useful value.

Years ago, broad participation in organized religion was much more common. Weekly services allowed people ages 9 to 90 to interact and connect in a meaningful way that created stronger multi-generational connections and emotional investments – with elder respect a natural byproduct.

Years ago, the nuclear family was a strong institution with typically closer geographic and extended family connections, where paternal and maternal elders were respected as family leaders, not as burdensome dependents.

Today, the demands of professional career mobility, often coupled with various multi-family configurations, serve to create physical distances for many families, with the senior members frequently connected by the weakest threads.

And even absent physical distance, the digital era also creates the challenge of genuine emotional connectivity versus the weaker brand of digital linkage that today’s generation favors.

To change these trends and truths we must first acknowledge them.

Let’s start with recognizing how Maine’s demographics as the oldest state in the country, coupled with our state’s massive size and lack of population density, combine to make our seniors particularly vulnerable in every dimension of life support: health services, financial insecurity, food insecurity, and basic shelter.

We need better public policy on the state level and within each community to insure that our older friends, relatives and neighbors are not forsaken and that they are afforded the respect and dignity that they’ve earned, and that they fully deserve.

An interesting phenomenon occurs every morning here in Maine and across the country. In virtually every community, dozens of retired folks, senior citizens and others that embrace the label of “old,” wake up, putter around the house, get dressed, and depart for their “morning place.” These places are coffee shops, local restaurants, and public facilities like libraries.

There, these various tribes of elders do something unique to themselves. They talk. They laugh. They share concerns. And, they share each other’s company before disbanding and returning to their other place, the one they call home. It’s clear that these emotive human connections are just as important as food or medicine for personal health and longevity.

For me, it’s hard to witness the genuine camaraderie and positive spirit of these daily gatherings without being reminded that for many of those seniors, morning coffee is sadly the central activity of their entire day. For many, limited transportation options or lack of community activities create silent burdens and lonely days.

Our lawmakers in Augusta and Washington, D.C., should do more to ensure that our older citizens receive basic life services. Health services and personal dignity for our most vulnerable citizens shouldn’t be doled out or deemed policy issues; they are human rights.

And each of us in each of our communities should all do more to respect our seniors on a daily basis. They’ve paved the way for all of us and they deserve so much more than just a cup of coffee each day.

As an old guy myself, I’m looking forward to finding my morning coffee tribe soon enough, with the hope that we’ll all have more to do later in the day, each day, with unlimited refills of respect and human dignity.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.