Anytime we look at people as part of a group, rather than as individuals, we tread on dangerous ground. I don’t care to be characterized by my population demographic’s supposedly common attributes, ie. baby boomers are selfish slackers, the me generation, etc. It’s ridiculous to think millions of people share enough commonalities to allow us to think we understand something about an individual, without actually getting to know that person.
Nowhere is such generalization more evident than in our thinking about our elders. The great majority of elders are healthy, active, independent people. They may still be actively employed, volunteering, mentoring, or contributing in a plethora of ways to their families and communities. They are elder statesman, justices, and consultants. Beyond native intelligence, they carry the wisdom gained through dealing with adversity.
Nor are elders all poor. The vast majority of wealth in our country is held by people over the age of sixty. Many elders continue to run businesses, manage investments, and contribute to charitable organizations. They are one of the most politically active age groups, continuing to influence both national and local political agendas.
The aging process is something none of us can avoid, but it too is individualized. Some exerts estimate up to 70% of our health risk relates to lifestyle factors, not heredity. The risk of serious illness, chronic disease, and disability does increase with age. Older people recognize those facts, and many resolve to do what they can to remain healthy. They take a pragmatic approach, watching diets and exercising. They remain interested and engaged in the world.
Being able to deal with stress is another key to health as a mature adult. Science is learning more and more about the negative effects of stress on the body. Stress causes levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol to increase, which is associated with a combination of risk factors, called metabolic syndrome. Having these risk factors greatly increases risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. Successfully managing stress can literally be a life saver. Older people often have developed the attitudes and skills needed to manage stress.
Ageism is as detrimental to older people as is prejudice of any kind. Instead of judging someone’s ability or capability based on their age, we must look beyond a number and see a person, complete with knowledge, unique experiences, and their own perspective. By doing so, we will be enriched by knowing someone with wisdom we have yet to gain.