September 25, 2013

OK, Boomers -- Look in the Mirror and Listen Up!

My favorite senior blogger Ronnie Bennett wrote a post last week about accepting our senior bodies. She included some great quotes from geriatrician Bill Thomas that led me to an article -- "Eldertopia'" -- he wrote a few years ago in AARP's The Journal. 

The Boomer Generation Needs to Look in the Mirror
Most of his article is directed at Baby Boomers, the 78 million children born after World War II, a generation he describes as having "a tumultuous beginning, a quiet middle, and an ending that is yet to be written." As a member of that generation, he sees Boomers just beginning to accept aging:
The postwar generation's dim but growing awareness of aging is beginning to generate intensely private concerns that people are reluctant to discuss openly. The shame-based approach to aging is heavily reinforced by an American mediascape that loudly and insistently proclaims: "You are young, Young is always better than old. Adulthood can last forever if you want it to." In public, we tell each other, "You are as young as you feel!" but in our most private moments we can feel the truth. We are aging . . . .
Admitting to the truth of aging is painful and difficult, but the admission must be made before we can begin the journey out of adulthood. The best place to start such an exercise in truth-telling is in front of a mirror . . . .
You must have an intensely personal and private conversation with your own true, aging, self. The time has come to look into the mirror and, finally, make peace with the changes you see on your face and feel in your mind and body, You are not the person you were 20 years ago. The fact is that those people vanished a long time ago.
Reading this, I realized that -- at age 84 -- I avoid taking a real look in the mirror. The only mirror I use regularly is the small bathroom mirror. Since my bald spot is conveniently located on the back of my head, I rarely see it. And somehow I've managed to equip a house without a full-length mirror so I don't see what I regard as the worse feature of my aging -- the big pot belly. When I see a reflection in a store window, I quickly look away. I delete photos that feature my gut. It's bad enough that now, when I respond to a question about my age, people no longer say -- as they used to -- "I would have guessed you were ten years younger!"

The Path to Personal Happiness and Fulfillment
Thomas suggest these two steps:
  • Stop pining for what is already gone.
  • Start searching for the person you were meant to be.
Relinquishing one's claim on youth is a necessary precondition for exploring life beyond adulthood, he says. Elderhood has been deliberately misinterpreted as mere decline and caricatured as second childhood. Instead, Thomas says, "elderhood is actually the rich reward that goes to those who manage to outgrow the frenzied jangle of adulthood and enter voluntarily into a new and much more soulful way of being."

Americans, he observes, comprehend "life beyond adulthood" about as well as they understand the dark side of the moon. Yet, for most of human history, elderhood -- life's third age -- has been viewed as a powerful cultural instrument. It has been protected, sustained, and nurtured because it is able to bind families, communities, tribes, and nations together. Elders possess novel ways of approaching time, money, faith, childhood, and relationships. They are capable of uniting us all within a shared past and future.

A Plea to the Boomers on the Threshold of Elderhood
Thomas makes a special plea to his fellow Boomers:
The extraordinary task of returning adulthood to its proper boundaries will require the emergence of a new generation of elders and the construction of a cultural bridge that connects them to society at large. This will be the postwar generation's last chance to right the wrongs that its unyielding embrace of adulthood have inflicted on our society and culture. We are deep within a global crisis that may well threaten our continued existence and we need elders more than ever before.
Thomas ends with this quote from Nelson Mandela when the African leader brought together a small, dedicated group of elders to help resolve global problems and ease human suffering:
The Elders can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. They will reach out to those who most need their help. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.
Those of us already in elderhood -- and you Boomers on its threshold -- Listen Up!

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