One of my favorite anecdote comes from Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher, who tells of a time when he visited a friend who lived in a village in the Himalayas. "You're looking so old!" the man said to Ram Dass. "You're so gray!" At first Ram Dass reacted with a Westerner's typical horror. Calling someone "old" in America is like labeling that person as inferior and someone to be avoided. But in India, he realized being old was an achievement that entitled a person to respect and recognition. Ram Dass said, "I realized that my friend was congratulating me on becoming an elder. He was saying, 'How wonderful that you've arrived at old age!'"
What a difference from my experience. Several years ago I was participating in a workshop and we were completing an exercise that required us to verbally defend our life to a group of other participants. I was told by a young woman of twenty five that although she appreciated what I had done and would do do in the world, as a person over 60, I should just die because there is not room or resources for everyone and older people do not contribute to society.
Later I talked to her about her feelings and beliefs and asked her if she saw anything that older people contribute to society..her answer was "No!" and told me with absoluteness that people over sixty five should just go away.
How far do we have to go to change this perception that older people are simply a social burden and have nothing to offer society or their communities. Although I don't perceive this young woman's feelings to be the dominant paradigm in society it is still sad that we have allowed our elders to be so isolated and their contribution unseen and unappreciated. Stashed away and hidden we don't see their contributions in creativity, wisdom, nurturing, teaching, unconditional support, spiritual growth, and perspective.
It is disappointing that our community structures and norms do not provide for better positive outlets for these qualities to be used and experienced. I am convinced, however, that as intentional agers we can make a difference in this but we must be bold yet affirming, warrior-like yet soft, and authentic yet empathetic in our interactions with others.