I often hear people my age and even younger lament that being young in this society is easy. And being older is impossibly hard. Youth has all the perks of the culture and being young, we are made to believe, is the real definition of life. In fact, sometimes, I can hear myself taking this position.
Age, in a youth-oriented society, can often become a very depressing proposition resulting in the isolation of an entire age group. We hear the stories all the time. Older men and women who stay in their homes or in public housing and even expensive condos in the most desirable neighborhoods die anonymously with no one knowing or caring. As empathetic citizens we may ask “How is this possible?” that someone can die and their absence not be noticed in any way. Seeking answers, we look to government and other social programs. There is even a discussion here in Portland about offering electronic devices to help in the monitoring.
But at least part of the problem resides in the fact that, too often, the older we get the less we stay in touch with the world around us. It’s as if we believe that no one wants or needs us and there is no place for us in life anymore. So we wait for the phone to ring or the email to arrive or the visit from a friend. And steadily we grow more isolated and perhaps depressed.
The fact is that for the vast majority of older people we don’t have to be isolated if we don’t do it to ourselves. Reaching out is the gist of getting older. We need to go out of ourselves and meet the world, rather than waiting for it to come to us.
Generativity (giving ourselves to the needs of the rest of the world) is the most important function of growing old. Generativity is not just the act of being more social it is the act of giving yourself to helping someone else. The key word here is “giving”. Old age is the only age when we can be so giving because it is the first time in life when we are free to give thought and time to the larger world. But we need to initiate that relationship. We are ready to test ourselves for the sake of the world. The opportunities are there we choose to reach out.
“A blessing of these years is the freedom to reach out to others, to do everything we can with everything in life that we have managed to develop all these years in both soul and mind for the sake of the rest of the human race.” Joan Chittister