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US Culture Shift: Respect for Elders

Forget 'golden' years, new watchwords for retirement become 'productive' and 'successful'

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Many advocates for older Americans welcome as long overdue the growing shift toward framing later years as a time for fruitful work. But some caution against adopting terms like "successful aging" - warning that such language can work against older adults, particularly women and minorities, who haven't followed a particular career track.

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"We do need to replace the old model," says Harry Moody, a philosopher, gerontologist and author of "Five Stages of the Soul." But "I'm very worried that we're going to end up with this idea of productive aging, while punishing people who aren't perceived as productive or successful."

Gerontologists warn that no one model can be used to describe the potential - or the potential problems - of older Americans. They point out that older people are just as diverse as younger people are, with varying degrees of skills and needs. But they do note that individuals who have lived longer are more likely to have what some call "cultural wisdom."

"Many would argue that as people grow older, they have a greater ability to think beyond themselves," says Lenard Kaye, a professor of social work and social research at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. "They're more willing to contribute not only to their own well-being, but to the well-being of those around them."

In fact, many researchers and program coordinators around the country are exploring ways that communities can benefit from the resources of their elders, especially through connecting older and younger generations.

In Greensboro, N.C., for example, sociologist Peggye Dilworth-Anderson brought together at-risk African-American grade-school children with older members of the community in an after-school program designed to bolster self-esteem. Some volunteers were retired teachers, but others were illiterate, including one woman who sang Negro spirituals to the children. As part of their bonding with the children, the adults shared their life experiences - describing things like life before television and without indoor plumbing.

Ms. Dilworth-Anderson says she got an unexpected result from the program: an increase among the children of what she calls self-efficacy. "It's the ability to strategize, to plan into the future, to think about tomorrow," she says. "Those older people, without pencil or paper, increased our children's understanding of self-efficacy."

Learning about old Harlem

At the Huntington Theatre in Boston, organizers of a project that involved training young people to interview local elders found a similar intergenerational bond.

"These young people didn't know about the Harlem Renaissance, that there were lawyers and doctors in the black community years ago," says Donna Glick, the theater's education director. "It gave kids a sense of the past where they didn't just see everybody as poor and discriminated against. They saw that these elders had good lives, rich lives, and that they made things happen for themselves."

Author Mary Pipher, who launched a national debate on the well-being of girls with her 1994 book, "Reviving Ophelia," is another advocate of the need to recognize elders as resources. In her new book, due out next year, she argues that older Americans are a vital link in restoring families and communities.

"One of the things that's happened in this country is that we've forgotten how to raise children, not so much as individual parents but as a culture," she says. "One of the wonderful things older people can do for us now is remind us of what a communal culture taught children, and give us some ideas for how groups raise children."