US Culture Shift: Respect for Elders

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

In case you weren't aware, the term "senior citizen" is out. So is "golden age." "Elderly" isn't a first choice either.

What's in? "Older adults" or "aging adults" - especially if the latter refers to "productive" or "successful" aging. And "elder" carries with it an increasingly popular cachet of its own - one that evokes wisdom and respect.

It's not just names that are changing, say experts on aging. As America stands on the brink of an unprecedented boom in the number of citizens over the age of 65, the way older adults view themselves - and are viewed by society - is undergoing a profound cultural transformation. It is one that has broad implications for everything from the way these adults are portrayed in the media to the roles they carve out for themselves in leading productive, engaged lives that will redefine not only the meaning of retirement, but what it means to grow older in the new millennium.

"There are a large number of pioneers who are recasting and reshaping and rethinking the life course," says Scott Bass, a gerontologist and dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has focused on the idea of productive aging. "They are ... defining what's called the 'third age.' "

Although stereotypes persist - views that depict older Americans as a drain on resources or as being inevitably diminished by age - increasingly, myths and images of aging are being shattered.

Demographics of the elders

Today, there are some 35 million Americans who are 65 years of age or older, up from just 3.1 million at the turn of the century. They currently make up 13 percent of the population, a figure that is projected to rise to 20 percent by the year 2030 (for a total of some 70 million elder Americans).

As they live longer, healthier lives, many of these older citizens are also refusing to accept old models of leisure time and retirement. Many of them are insisting on continuing to live productive lives, either through long careers or part-time work or volunteer activities. It's a trend, say gerontologists, that will only gain momentum as baby boomers "come of age" as elders.

"We'll have more respect as elders," says Jill Grigsby, a gerontologist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and a baby boomer. "We'll have the numbers, but as we get older, we will have more economic resources too."

"One of the advantages of being a baby boomer is that advertising tends to follow you," she says. "As baby boomers age, older people will become less invisible because there's so many of us. We'll see images of aging become more dominant."

Much of the current discussion about aging - and how to describe those who are redefining it - focuses on words like "successful" and "productive."

According to one recent study, 5.4 million older Americans were ready and able to go back to work in 1994. And though gerontologists say age discrimination continues to be a challenge in the workplace, they note that many employers are beginning to realize that older workers can be a valuable resource. Mr. Bass of the University of Maryland says that when he met with a group of Fortune 500 company leaders recently, he found their human resource executives much more open to hiring "mature" workers.

"We're still a youth-oriented society, and the bulk of employers are still looking for younger workers," he says. "But there's a much greater sensitivity [to age] across the board. We're in a transition period."

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.

"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."

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