Aged Means Stronger- Part 1

I sometimes feel discouraged and a little cynical about the state of the world. In my counselling job I work all day with younger families and individuals in crisis and every now and then I become frustrated with people’s apparent lack of critical thinking skills. I see people making poor decisions for themselves and the planet and I wonder why so few seem to question a capitalistic society that puts profit before wellness. I also see daily the effects of trauma and violence on individuals and even entire communities and I wonder how the younger generations will find the resources to heal all these wounds.

In addition, I keep hearing dire warnings about how the aging baby boomers will start putting a strain on the economy and healthcare resources as they begin to retire and become frail and elderly. However, in the last while I have been impressed by several senior women I know and I began to have suspicions that the media may be looking at the boomer “crisis” all wrong. In fact, I do not believe that aging boomers will be a drain on any part of the system. My argument for this has two parts, each of which I will preface with a personal story.

Part one- mental/emotional health:
This summer I went to Saltspring Island to visit my Auntie Ruth, who is 87 years old. She lives by herself in her own home and as we visited I noted she is still as sharp as a tack. I believe she is what scientists call a “superager” because her memory and wits are as intact as they ever were. In fact, she actually remembered a few things that I had forgotten, related to people we know. She has always been a very social person and as we chatted, she asked for updates on everyone we know in common. I realized that one of her secrets is likely her continued active participation in the world. She has a social map in her mind and she keeps it vivid by constantly updating details of everyone in it. This map is also a historical web with world and political events and figures tied in to it, so everything is linked. Her involvement has virtually created a giant mnemonic device for her memory.

She maintains her mental youth in other ways, too. She remains physically active, and contributes to the community through her charity work. In spite of breaking a hip last year, she even takes a friend with dementia on walks every single day, keeping the friend active too. She has never eaten much processed food and she still eats plenty of fresh foods from the local farmer’s market. Auntie Ruth is an example of what good aging can look like. Far from being a drain on society, she adds good to the world, and she will likely do so until her death.

So instead of fearing that the “grey tsunami” will drag society down, I wondered if we might find our aging boomers will step in and turn things around like this. After all, these seniors (including myself) are the children of the sixties. This is a generation where the women especially fought in their younger years to make massive changes to improve society. They then went on to be the first generation of superwomen, running careers and raising families (’cause I’m a W-O-M-A-N“). Why should we expect them to stop now that they are retired? They know how to think critically and after retirement they will have the time to teach their skills to the younger people who are struggling.

Then today I heard a radio interview that confirmed exactly what I was thinking. Paola Gianturco, a photojournalist, has documented a second worldwide wave of activism from these very women. In her book, Grandmother Power, a Global Phenomenon, she tells how grandmothers all over the world have begun to band together to right wrongs and help their grandchildren. In Argentina they are finding the generation of children stolen by the military dictatorship of the 70’s-80’s, and reuniting them with their families. In Africa they are raising the grandchildren orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. She gives powerful and poignant examples from countries all over the world.

When I hear stories like the ones in this book, my cynicism melts away and I feel hope, gratitude, and strength. How amazing to know that we can age with such possibilities open to us. Instead of growing dotty and feeble, we can become bolder with age, and gain in mental and emotional strength. As we put our acquired wisdom to good use, we can make the world a better place for our kids and grandkids in the process.

Next post: Part 2, Physical Health

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