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The Value of Older People: Thoughts During Older Americans Month

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Old age is not a subject most of us enjoy dwelling upon. As Groucho Marx remarked, “Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough.”

But since May is Older Americans Month, I have been thinking about older people, whether Americans or not. Friends and colleagues in their 70s, 80s, and one who just turned 100, are among those whose company I enjoy the most. Why? Is it because the elderly are wise? Maybe. Though I’ve heard it said that in Africa, especially, age is revered a little bit more and they consider you to have wisdom, even if you don’t.

Photo © Dennis FinnenPhoto © Dennis FinnenCultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson has studied variation between generations, as well as between cultures, and provides some food for thought. Speaking on the value of older people she noted that in the past, elders were few and precious and for this reason they were more valuable. By the time they reached adulthood they knew all they needed to know. Nowadays, if you don’t keep changing you’re obsolete! She observed that although people live longer today, they think shorter. The consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s got people thinking about issues in a long-term context, looking back in time as well as forward rather than just from within the confines of their own lifespan. To become wise, we must be willing to learn and to reflect. Learn more from her books and from an interview with the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century.

Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health & Humanities, shares insights gleaned from his work as gerontologist and researcher in The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (2005). He reports that studies suggest that the brain’s left and right hemispheres become better integrated during middle age, making way for greater creativity. Age also seems to dampen some of the negative emotions while the positive emotions remain intact. Until late in the 20th century little, if any, attention was paid to psychological development in the second half of life. Sigmund Freud stated “about the age of 50, the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.” Well, Freud was 51 when he said that, and he wrote some of his best work after age 65. Sophocles wrote his masterpiece Oedipus Rex, upon which Freud based his pioneering theory of the Oedipus Complex at age 71. Older brains have learned more. Many aspects of life are too complicated and subtle to learn quickly; it can take decades to acquire the deep knowledge and understanding to be a truly effective therapist, pastor, manager or politician. There is no substitute for acquired learning in fields such as editing, law, medicine, coaching, and many areas of science. So, older people are often truly not just older, but better.

I think some of these factors— changes in the brain that can lead to greater creativity and positive changes in the emotional sphere; willingness to learn and reflect; and deep knowledge and understanding developed over the decades—may begin to explain why my life has been so enriched by friends over 70, 80, and even 100.

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