How many times have I seen an old person and not stopped to engage them in conversation? It has been far more often than I would like to admit.
Through my 93-year-old father, I am getting a crash course in what I can expect to happen as I age. I watch as others now ignore him in social situations as I, too, have ignored the elderly. Watching people talk around him, as though he isn’t there, is painful.
I am guilty of this behavior as well. I remember thinking “What can I say to them?” as I endured the discomfort of not knowing how to engage. “What if they don’t understand me?” and “How will I get away so I can get on with my day?” were both questions I asked myself. I have heard others say “they only talk about the past” as though that is a bad and boring experience.
Have we trained ourselves and others to avoid and ignore the most treasured belongings of the elderly – their memories? The truth is baby boomers are entering their third and final phase of life. We want to be active, engaged, and involved. But will our self-focus and obsession with youth come back to haunt us?
The days will come soon enough when there is little future to focus on and most of our life experience will be in the past. But what richness is contained in that past – especially of those members of the Silent Generation like my father whom will all soon be gone. Will the members of Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennials treat us the way we treat the elderly? The answer is most likely “yes” unless we change our interactions, value the memories of those growing old, and teach others to do the same.
Understanding the history my father has lived at the personal, local, national, and world level is an opportunity that will soon be gone. The lessons he has learned, the knowledge that he has, and the experiences he has gone through are rich with history and information about how I can handle the future.
Seek to understand rather than to be understood. The words of St. Francis of Assisi are as true today as they were when he spoke them more than 700 years ago. Understanding the elderly and the process of aging is something many in my generation have avoided. It is as though we somehow think we are not going to age. The truth is all of us are aging and the time to embrace that fact is now. Boomers have an opportunity to change the future by embracing the wisdom of age. I hope we seize it.