Our Western culture tends to idealize youth, while showing little respect or courtesy for our aging, mature population. However, many countries in the world honor their elder citizens. Age, in those societies, is symbolic of experience, wisdom and knowledge, which is shared with the younger generations.
The enormous amount of “real-world” experience, education and character the elder citizens have is often ignored by those who could learn from them.
From 1946 to 1964, more than 76 million babies were born. They (we) are called the baby boomers. In the United States, these citizens are responsible for more than half of consumer spending and are the most educated of any generation.
It’s not my intent to convince younger adults to change, but to consider how we treat this massively underestimated aging population.
Courtesy appears to be an old-fashioned concept. In fact, I have often heard people refer to our time as “the age of entitlement.” The dominant idea seems to be that “I should get everything I want when I want it, even if I have not worked for it, or it is not mine to have or use.”
Those who feel this sense of entitlement are not defined as having a healthy self respect. However, their behavior easily translates into an absence of respect for others.
Genuine modern etiquette has at its foundation the view that each of us should be treated with respect and courtesy.
When we speak with our elders, we should address them by the honorific terms, such as Mr., Mrs., Dr., Professor, etc. All too often, they are addressed simply by first name. This may be fine if you have already established a relationship. Until then, it is best to ask how an individual would like to be addressed before we assume he or she is comfortable being addressed by first name.
There is little doubt that growing older can bring about certain difficulties. One problem is that of image and preoccupation with beauty. In western societies, body image and youth have become the values of merit.
Youth-centered thinking gives the impression that the elderly contribute little to our modern society. In this way of thinking, it is as though all the years of education, work and accumulated knowledge somehow disappear. Contrary to this neo-Orwellian belief, they do not. There remains a vibrant spirit that should not to be overlooked or underestimated.
The elderly are the foundation of our society. Every benefit we enjoy is here because of someone who is older than us. Not only that, but the elderly are the link to our past.
If you happen to be in the position where you can be of assistance to someone who is elderly, do so. Offer your seat when there are no more seats, extend a helping hand if needed and always ask respectfully if you can be of service. You may just be rewarded with a snippet of their amassed knowledge and wisdom.
Jared Diamond, UCLA professor of geography and physiology, said in one of his lectures: “If you want to get advice on complicated problems, ask someone who’s 70; don’t ask someone who’s 25.”
We would do well to understand people’s changing strengths and weaknesses as they age, he advised, and appreciate our elders’ deeper understanding of human relationships and their ability to think across wide-ranging disciplines, to strategize and share what they’ve learned.
The New York Times reported on a sermon by 90-year-old Rabbi Joshua Haberman of Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C. in which he listed six benefits of growing old. Here is the abbreviated version:
- The cooling of passion
- Submission to what you cannot control
- Willingness to be wrong
- Increased appreciation and gratitude
- The love of family
Funny enough, age is relative. Someone who is 20 might think that someone 40 is old; someone 40 might think that someone 80 is old. We know the 40-year-old has more experience than the 20-year-old, and the 80-year-old has more life experiences than either.
Respect is earned. Those who have navigated through the difficulties of life, society, work and family, and done so with integrity, should be respected. The deciding factor should be not age, but strength and character — yours and theirs.
- Zeda Dowell of Ben Lomond answers questions, teaches classes and provides information about international protocol, dining, being a gentleman and cultural diversity. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.